October 21, 2018

Punishing Bennett won’t bring peace

People do crazy things when they get desperate and run out of ideas. That’s the first thought that came to mind after I read that a group of pro-Israel academics have decided that the best way to help the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace process is to stop people like Naftali Bennett from entering the United States. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Academics who are supposed to worship debate and argument are calling for the punishment of those whose views they disagree with. 

On the website of a new organization called The Third Narrative, about 20 academics who are members of Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP) are calling on the U.S. and Europe to impose personal sanctions on Israeli politicians who promote the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and further settlement activity. These sanctions include visa restrictions and the freezing of foreign assets.

According to their statement, the academics are out to punish people whose policies “slam the door not only on peacemaking at present but for the foreseeable future.”

I understand that not all disagreements are created equal. This disagreement is a serious one. For people like the signatories, who believe that Israel’s Jewish and democratic future depends on Israel leaving the West Bank, anyone in opposition to that idea represents a serious threat. I get that.

What I don’t get is the conclusion that the best way to proceed is to punish the dissenters. It’s another way of saying, “Sorry, we don’t want a debate on this one.” I might expect that response from ideological settlers, but from highly educated academics? 

What’s ironic is that, just last week, Bennett, the most prominent target of the initiative, engaged in a fascinating debate with Martin Indyk at the Brookings Institution Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., on the very issue that the signatories want to punish him for.

In front of an elite crowd full of proponents of the two-state solution, Bennett made a passionate case that the decades-long process to create a Palestinian state has been an utter failure and that it’s time to look for alternate approaches, however imperfect. He spoke of the need to upgrade the quality of life for Palestinians and challenged sacred cows such as the imperative of creating a Palestinian state and the demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character.

I’m sure he didn’t change many people’s minds. I have my own serious reservations about Bennett’s approach. But that’s not the point. The point is, had the signatories had their way, that fascinating debate never would have happened. We never would have heard a courageous, articulate and candid case from an important politician challenging the conventional wisdom of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That would have been a crime in its own right.

Well-meaning people may have significant differences with Bennett, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Bennett is a popular politician who is taken seriously by a large group of Israeli voters. The idea of punishing a democratically elected representative for his views is more than problematic — it’s offensive.

Not to mention that helping the peace process is the last thing it would accomplish.

The initiative simply pours more fuel on the deceptive and false notion that the settlements are the key obstacle to peace. I wish they were.

First, it’s a myth to assume that Israel keeps “gobbling up” the land designated for a future Palestinian state. As much as I abhor the announcements of construction that lead only to international condemnations, as Elliott Abrams reported recently in Foreign Policy, settlement construction for the first half of 2014 actually was down 72 percent versus the previous year. For many years now, the great majority of construction has been in settlement blocs that, it is  widely assumed, will remain in Israeli hands in any future agreement.

But even if you hate Israel’s settlement policy, it’s still a fact that Israel has demonstrated its ability and willingness to dismantle settlements in the search for peace. When you consider Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005, Israel already has abandoned more than 90 percent of the land it captured in the Six-Day War.

It’s one thing to disagree with Israel’s settlement policy; it’s quite another to elevate it as the key obstacle to peace. The ascendance of politicians like Bennett is not a sign that Israelis have lost their desire for peace, but rather that they have lost faith in the desire of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to deliver it.

If the signatories really were interested in pushing for peace, they would put more emphasis on the PA’s longtime refusal to accept a Jewish state under any borders. There’s plenty of evidence of this, but they need look no further than a recent sermon from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, Mahmoud Al-Habbash, who, according to Palestinian Media Watch, preached that “accepting Israel’s existence is prohibited under Islamic law.”

Instead of squelching debate with democratic allies, if the esteemed academics are intent on calling for personal sanctions, they ought to sanction leaders who haven’t been elected by their people and who use their position of power to preach Jew-hatred and continued refusal to accept a Jewish state.

If you ask me, that’s really slamming the door on peace.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.