September 22, 2018

Concerned Jews of America, Here Are Answers to Your Pledge

A “Pledge” against Israel’s new nation-state law was recently put online (here) by eight organizations: T’ruah (the rabbinic call for human rights), the New Israel Fund, J-Street, Ameinu, American for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for progressive Israel, and the Union for Reform Judaism. According to the text of the pledge,Sixty-two members of Knesset voted to approve the Nation-State Law, which denigrates minorities within Israel, as well as Jews outside of Israel. Take the pledge to hold these MKs to account for their vote, which threatens democracy and equality in Israel, by demanding answers from them.”

The pledge also states that “If any of the 62 Members of Knesset who voted for the Nation-State Law speak in my community, or at a conference I am attending, or on a delegation I participate in, I will ask these questions.  Those questions are listed below.  

Even though I am not a member of Knesset, the following questions are also addressed to me since I am a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum (the think tank that initiated and promoted the nation-state law) as well a member of the Likudparty.  Had I been a member of Knesset, I would have voted in favor of the nation-state law.  Below are my answers to the questions asked by the above organizations. Those questions and answers address key disagreements between the Israeli government and liberal American Jews.

  
1. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

• Do you believe that non-Jewish citizens of Israel deserve all of the same rights as Jewish citizens of Israel? 

Yes, except for the right to national self-determination within the territory of the state.   Israel’s Declaration of Independence grants the right to national self-determination within the State of Israel only to the Jewish people, but it also grants equal civic rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnic or religious identity.  Here are six quotes from the Declaration of Independence which prove that the State of Israel reserves the right to national self-determination, within its borders, to the Jewish people:

“In 1897, the Zionist Congress convened by Theodore Herzl proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in its land.”
“The Jewish people has a natural right to national self-determination, like any other people.”
“We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.”
“The State of Israel shall be open to Jewish immigration and to the ingathering of the exiles.”
We call upon the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to unite around Israel, via immigration and construction, and to stand by Israel to achieve the age-old vision of Israel’s redemption.”
“Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we hereby sign the present declaration … in the homeland.”  

While the Declaration of Independence reserves the right to national self-determination to the Jewish people, it also grants equal civic rights to all citizens regardless of their identity.  The Declaration states that Israel shall “guarantee completely equal political and social rights to all its citizens regardless of their religion, race, or sex.”  

The principles of exclusive national self-determination and of equal civic rights are not incompatible.  Israel’s flag only has a Jewish symbol; Israel’s national anthem sings the Jewish longing for Zion; Israel’s law of return privileges Jewish immigration; the Bedouins cannot declare national independence in the Negev desert, nor can the Arabs in the Galilee.  Yet all citizens of Israel can vote and be elected to the Knesset; they can all become judges at the Supreme Court;and all are eligible to the same social benefits.  Indeed, thereare Arab members of Knesset as well as Arab Supreme Court justices, and there is a Druze minister in the government.  All citizens receive the same benefits from the National Insurance Institute whether they are Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, etc.  

Israel is not alone in being altogether a nation-state and a democracy.  Most European countries are.  No less than seventeen members of the European Union (EU) have a constitution that proclaims sovereignty in the name of the country’s majority nation: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

Americans and Canadians are generally unaware of the fact that their country is the exception and not the rule in not being a nation-state.  To most Europeans, by contrast, being altogether a nation-state and a democracy is self-evident.

The nation-state law preserves and enshrines the rights of minorities.  It officializes the “special status” of the Arabic language (Article 4) and it recognizes to Israel’s minorities the right to rest on their religious and/or national holidays and days of rest (Article 10).          

• If so, why did you vote for the nation-state bill, which pointedly disenfranchises Israel’s minorities and never once uses the words “equality” or “democracy”?

The nation-state law does not disenfranchise Israel’s minorities.  Reserving the right to national self-determination to the state’s majority nation was recognized as a legitimate and universal right by the League of Nations after World War One.  It is based on this right that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was replaced by nation-states, and that the Ottoman Empire was replaced by mandates in which nations (including the Jews) were to eventually achieve their independence.  

The nation-state law completes Israel’s constitutional order.  Israel does not have a constitution but only “basic laws”which were granted constitutional status by the Supreme Court.  Constitutions generally codify three principles: a. The purpose and identity of the state; b. The separation of powers; c. The fundamental rights of citizens.

Israel already has basic laws that define the separation of powers (such as Basic law: the Knesset) and that protect fundamental rights (such as Basic law: Human Dignity and Freedom).  Israel did not have a basic law on the purpose and identity of the state.  Now it does.

Israel’s nation-state law does what most European constitutions do: it specifies that the right to self-determination belongs to the majority nation; it describes the flag; and it codifies the country’s official language, national anthem, and national holidays.   The new nation-state law isthe equivalent of a few articles in European constitutions.  The new basic law does not replace other basic laws but completes them.  It is not a constitution but an addition to an incomplete constitutional order.

The new basic law is no different in content from the articles of European constitutions related to the state’s identity.  As explained above, seventeen European constitutions proclaim the country’s sovereignty in the name of its majority nation.

Nineteen European constitutions describe the country’s flag (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain).  Twelve European countries have a cross on their flag (Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK).  

Sixteen European constitutions specify that the country hasone (and only one) official language (Austria, Bulgaria,Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain).

Thirteen European constitutions codify their national anthem (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia).

Accusing Israel’s nation-state law of not dealing with the rights of minorities is like accusing Article II of the French constitution (which codifies the official language, the flag and the national anthem) of not dealing with the separation of powers.  Different articles of a constitution relate to separate issues.  So, too, Israel’s basic laws.  Equality, democracy, and the separation of powers are already codified by other basic laws.  Basic Law: The Knesset deals with the separation of powers, not with the state’s identity.  Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom deals with freedom, not with the separation of powers. Basic Law: Nation-State deals with the state’s identity, not with rights or with the separation of powers.  All of Israel’s basic laws have an equal constitutional status; none is replaced or superseded by others.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence never once uses the word “democracy.”  Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom never once uses the word “equality.”  Why does the absence of those words arouse concern only when it comes to Basic Law: Nation-State?  The principle of equality before the law is enshrined in the jurisprudence of Israel’s High Court of Justice, and it is neither undermined nor diminished by the nation-state law.  The nation-state law grants constitutional status to the Jewish right to national self-determination proclaimed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  Doing so was necessary because the High Court of Justice ruled back in 1948 that the Declaration of Independence does not have the status of a law or of a constitution.      

2. Defenders of the Nation-State Law say it provides a necessary legal defense of Israel’s Jewish character. 

• Can you explain what you perceive to be the threat to Israel’s Jewish character that necessitated this new law? 

Passing the nation-state basic law was necessary because of the judicial activism of Israel’s High Court of Justice in the past two decades.

In 1992 and 1994 the Knesset passed two basic laws: one on “human dignity and freedom” and one on “freedom of occupation.” Justice Aharon Barak (who presided the Supreme Court between 1995 and 2006) proclaimed a “constitutional revolution” after the passing of those two basic laws. What Barak meant was that the High Court of Justice could now strike down laws passed by the Knesset if deemed “unconstitutional” (i.e. incompatible with the two new basic laws).  Nowhere in the basic law does it say that the court is entitled to use them to strike down regular legislation. Yet Barak unilaterally granted that power to the court in a 1995 ruling. 

The “constitutional revolution” has affected Israel’s identity as a nation-state.  The basic law on “human dignity and freedom” states that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” But what happens when Jewish and democratic values conflict? No problem, Barak wrote in 1992: In case of a conflict, the word “Jewish” shall be interpreted by the court “with the highest level of abstraction.” In other words, it shall be ignored. Theoretically, the court could use in its rulings Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which defines Israel is a Jewish state. Yet, as explained before, the court ruled in 1948 that the Declaration of Independence has no constitutional value.

The Court’s activism, combined with the “highest level of abstraction” with which Barak interpreted Israel’s Jewishness, were soon to be felt. The Court ruled that a Jew cannot purchase a plot of land in a Bedouin village (Avitan case, 1989), but that an Arab can build a house in a village established by the Jewish Agency (Ka’adan case, 2000). The Court was petitioned twice by NGOs (in 2006 and in 2012) to cancel Israel’s citizenship law so as to impose on Israel the Palestinian “right of return” through the back door via fictitious marriages. Though the Court rejected both petitions, it did so with a razor-thin majority of six to five.

• Can you name any way in which this law actually accomplishes this stated goal? 

Part of Aharon Barak’s “constitutional revolution” was also to repeal the standing (or locus standi) principle (i.e. the ability of a party to demonstrate to the court sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case), and to declare that the Court may be petitioned on any issue and not only on legal ones (“anything is justiciable” was Barak’s formula).  As a result, NGOs (many of them funded by the New Israel Fund) petition the Court to challenge laws and government decisions which they deem unfit to their political agendas.  This phenomenon undermines the principle of national sovereignty and it constitutes a threat to laws, decisions and symbols that make Israel a nation-state.  

Laws and symbols related to Israel’s Jewish identity are not immune from petitions at the High Court of Justice. The “law of return” (which grants automatic immigration rights only to Jews) might one day be struck down for being discriminatory; Israel’s national anthem (which expresses the Jews’ two-millennia faithfulness to their land) and flag (which only has a Jewish symbol) could be challenged in court for ignoring the feelings of the Arab minority; and taxpayers could petition the court against the spending of their money on the preservation of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Until the passing of nation-state basic law, the court had no constitutional basis to reject such petitions and to protect Israel’s Jewishness. Now it does.

3. One of the consequences of the Nation-State Law was to create a needless crisis with Israel’s Druze citizens. 

• Despite their generations of service and sacrifice for Israel, do you not see the Druze as equal citizens and partners in Israel’s society and future? 

The Druze are equal citizens and partners in Israel’s society and future like other Israeli citizens.  They enjoy all the civic rights granted by the state.  But they do not have a right to national and territorial self-determination within the borders of the State of Israel.  They cannot, for example, declare an independent state in the Golan Heights.  The same restrictions exist in other democratic nation-states.  The Catalans and the Basques are equal citizens of the Spanish kingdom, but they are constitutionally barred from declaring their national independence (as the Catalans can testify).  Likewise, the Corsicans are equal citizens of the French Republic, but they do not have a right to national self-determination under the French Constitution.  The list goes on.

Ayoob Kara, Israel’s Telecommunications Minister, is Druze.  He voted in favor of the law because, he said, “If there were no Jewish state, we Druze would be massacred just like in Syria.  The Jewish state of Israel is the only Middle East country where the Druze and the Arabs are free.”  The Druze are not the only minority in Israel to feel that way.  ShakiKhalloul, Chairman of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association is a vocal supporter of the nation-state basic law:“It is only because it is Jewish that Israel is democratic and that we Aramaic Christians are free” he explained.  Thesepeople feel that they are equal citizens and partners in Israel’s society and future precisely because Israel is a Jewish state.

It would be misleading to describe the demonstration (on August 4th, 2018) of Druze leaders and citizens against the nation-state law as a spontaneous and a-political one.  The demonstration was organized by NGOs such as “ANU.”  ANU, which receives funding from the New Israel Fund and from the European Union, wrote on its websites two lies about the nation-state law: a. That it cancels the principle of civic equality (it doesn’t); b. That it justifies the unequal distribution of national resources (it doesn’t either).  ANU also wrote on its website that “The Israeli government purposely undermines the international right of minorities to national self-determination.”  As explained before, there is no such “international right,” and the national self-determination of minorities explicitly rejected by most European constitutions.  But ANU’s endgame is clear: it advocates the national self-determination of minorities in Israel, which would enable the Druze to claim sovereignty in the Golan, the Bedouins in the Negev, and the Arabs in the Galilee.  This would spell the territorial disintegration of the State of Israel. 

So the crisis with the Druze community was not created by the law but by political NGOs that spread lies about the law.

• If you do, why did you vote for the Nation State Law and what will you now do to repair this damage? 

No damage was caused by the law, and therefore no damage needs to be repaired.  Yet the government has agreed to address the concerns expressed by certain Druze leaders.  After meeting with leaders of the Druze community, the Prime Minister has agreed to promote legislation that shall anchor the status of the Druze and Circassian communities, and that shall provide benefits to members of minority groups who serve in the security forces.  The law will also institutionalize financial support for Druze education and culture.  It was also agreed that existing basic laws shall be amended so as to recognize the contribution made by all minorities and communities that participate in the defense of the country.

4. The provisions of the Nation-State Law, which you supported, also discriminate against Israel’s non-Orthodox Jews.

• Do you understand that this alienates the majority of American Jews, damages their connection to Israel and weakens overall support for Israel in the United States?
• Does this concern you?

Do you understand that the above statement (point #4) is factually wrong?

The nation-state law does not discriminate against Israel’s non-Orthodox Jews.  The English translation of the law is available online here.  I challenge you to show me what article of the law discriminates against Israel’s non-Orthodox Jews.  People are entitled to their own opinions about this law, but they are not entitled to their own facts.  Those who make up unfounded accusations, without even bothering to read the text of the law, have only themselves to blame for grievances that are not grounded in fact.  

The nation-state law officializes Israel’s responsibilities toward Diaspora Jews regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof).  Far from driving a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, the nation-state basic law institutionalizes the link and mutual responsibility between Israel and Diaspora Jews.  Article 6 of the law says the following: a. The State shall strive to ensure the safety of members of the Jewish People and of its citizens, who are in trouble and in captivity, due to their Jewishness or due to their citizenship; b. The State shall act, in the Diaspora, to preserve the ties between the State and members of the Jewish People; c. The State shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish People among Jews in the Diaspora.

Israel’s ultra-orthodox legislators had strong reservations about Article 6 precisely because it includes all Jews.  Article 6(c) implies that the State of Israel shall share the cost of Jewish education in the Diaspora, with no distinction between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.  Ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset opposed that clause because they did not want their taxpayer money to go to Reform of Conservative Jews in America.  Yet the article was approved despite their opposition.  

So what concerns me is the fact that some people do not eventake the time to read a one-page bill, make up false claims about it, and then get upset because of their own unfounded accusations.  If we want to have an honest and rational debate, it must be grounded in facts. 

5. Many critics feel that the Nation-State Law – and others the current Knesset has passed – move Israel further from the family of Western liberal democracies, and closer to so-called “illiberal democracies” like Hungary and Poland.  That view is reinforced by Israeli leaders’ rhetorical attacks on Arab citizens of Israel, the judiciary, the media and civil society organizations. Many American Jews feel Israel is becoming less and less recognizable to them as the country they thought they knew and long supported. 

• Does this concern you? If so, what do you propose to do about it?

When you say that the Knesset has passed laws that “move Israel further from the family of Western liberal democracies,”can you give examples?  One example?  Claims must be backed by facts.  Unlike Poland, Israel has not passed a law that restricts the independence of the Supreme Court and of its judges.  Unlike Hungary, Israel has not passed a law that criminalizes assistance to illegal immigrants.  So when you say “many critics feel,” you are indeed expressing a feeling but not a fact.    

Legislation and public debate on issues such as the handling of illegal work migrants, the separation of powers, or the funding of NGOs, are not “rhetorical attacks.”  On those three issues, the following clarifications are called for.

Like many European countries, Israel has a large number (in proportion to its total population) of illegal work migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.  Courts in Switzerland and in the United Kingdom have recently ruled that most Eritreans are not political refugees and can therefore be sent back to their country.  But when Israel considered a similar move, it was harshly criticized for “deporting refugees.”

The separation of powers in Israel was never clearly defined by a written constitution (which Israel lacks) and was profoundly reshaped by Aharon Barak’s “constitutional revolution.”  Many experts are of the opinion that the constitutional revolution has gone too far by replacing the separation of powers with a hierarchy of powers in which judges, not the Knesset, have the last word.  Some have suggested to remedy this imbalance by introducing reforms inspired from Canada (where parliament can re-legislate bills struck down by the Supreme Court) or from the United Kingdom (where the Supreme Court cannot strike down laws but can only recommend their amendment).  Debating issues of constitutional law and proposing reforms inspired from Britain and Canada (none of which can be accused of being “illiberal democracies”) do not constitute “rhetorical attacks” on the judiciary and does not move Israel away from the family of Western liberal democracies.  

As for NGOs, they have in recent years made full use of the “constitutional revolution” (which, as explained before, has repealed the standing principle and has declared that no issue is beyond the Court’s jurisdiction).  When such NGOs get most of their funding from foreign governments, they undermine the principle of national sovereignty.  In 2016, Israel passed a law that makes it mandatory for NGOs that receive more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments to make that information public.  Israel is not the only country faced with the phenomenon of NGOs that take an active part in domestic politics with foreign funding.  It is precisely to protect itself from such foreign interference that the US Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which make it mandatory for lobbyists with non-US funding to register as foreign agents at the Department of Justice.  In January 2015, Congress introduced a new directive making it mandatory for NGOs to specify what percentage of their funding comes from foreign governments.

All this goes to show that Israel faces complex issues like other democracies.  Indeed, Israel faces bigger challenges because it is a democracy at war.  Yet the measures taken or considered by Israel to face those challenges are no different than the ones adopted by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Switzerland.  Israel should be judged by the same standards as other Western democracies, not by higher ones.  And criticism of Israel, or of any other country for that matter, should be grounded in facts –not in narratives. So should the dialogue between Israel and US Jewry.


Dr. Emmanuel Navon is a political scientist and foreign policy expert who lectures at Tel-Aviv University (TAU) and at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC).  He is a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum (a public policy think tank) and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (a foreign policy think tank), and an analyst for i24news (an Israel-based international TV channel).  His upcoming book is The Star and the Scepter: A Diplomatic History of Israel.

Yossi Klein Halevi and the Art of Love

Does the Jewish world need another book on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The very word “intractable” suggests that we don’t. We’re creatures of results. We like to fix things and move on. If a problem is insoluble, we tend to lose interest.

The problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is that we can’t afford to move on. It’s more than a problem — it’s a ticking clock. Continuing with the status quo puts Israel at risk of becoming either a non-Jewish state or an undemocratic state — which are unacceptable options. That’s why there will always be an audience for new ideas, new thinking — anything — that can bring us hope for an eventual solution.

In that sense, my friend Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” has come at a perfect time.

The reason I say this is not because he has found a magical solution — there isn’t any. Rather, it is because the level of discourse in Jewish America about the conflict has coarsened and shriveled.

Defenders of Israel are convinced you can’t negotiate with those who want to kill you. Critics of Israel act as if the solution is all in Israel’s hands. In particular, among a new generation of Jewish activists, the conversation has turned into a virtual temper tantrum, with protesters blowing off steam with simple-minded calls to “End the Occupation,” as if it were that easy. These protesters have updated Herzl’s famous dictum — in their case, “If you scream it, it is no dream.”

Yossi wants his Palestinian neighbor to appreciate the sacred depth of the Jewish connection to the Holy Land.

There’s something poignantly sad about all this. As if the intractability of the conflict weren’t bad enough, it has had the unfortunate side effect of making Jews turn on each other with anger and bitterness. Because there’s no solution in sight, time has become an enemy. Each side has dug in deeper. We’re down to hand-to-hand combat.

Into this communal food fight comes Yossi Klein Halevi with an invitation for all of us to take a deep breath and return to our core. In telling Israel’s story to a fictitious Palestinian neighbor, he’s as raw and honest and passionate as can be. But here’s the thing — he’s equally raw and honest and passionate when acknowledging the story of his neighbor. This is what disarms the reader, whether Arab or Jewish, right or left.

“We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he writes at the beginning of his first letter. “We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares.”

This sets the tone for a book that will aim to do the impossible: to offer hope where there is none. Through the alchemy of love, candor and empathy, Yossi hopes to redeem the very idea of hope. And God is never far from the picture.

Through the alchemy of love, candor and empathy, Yossi hopes to redeem the very idea of hope. And God is never far from the picture.

“As a religious person, I am forbidden to accept this abyss between us as permanent, forbidden to make peace with despair,” he writes. “As the Qur’an so powerfully notes, despair is equivalent to disbelief in God. To doubt the possibility of reconciliation is to limit God’s power, the possibility of miracle — especially in this land. The Torah commands me, ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ — even when peace appears impossible, perhaps especially then.”

This weaving of the sacred with the real permeates the book. The letters are a cry of the heart, an appeal to understanding. Yossi wants his Palestinian neighbor to appreciate the sacred depth of the Jewish connection to the Holy Land. He also wants his neighbor to understand the genuine fears that lie in Israeli hearts, the cynicism that has built up when it comes to peace, the hard reality behind the erection of so many walls.

There’s an unspoken contract in the book — the better I hear you, the better you’ll hear me. By showing how well he hears his neighbor, Yossi hopes his neighbor will return the favor.

It is this art of “hearing” that American Jews could use right now. Yossi, in effect, is telling us: Stop screaming and start hearing. He’s telling young Jewish activists who claim to love Israel while screaming against Israel that there’s a better way. It’s called nuance. It’s called complexity. Hear the Palestinian side, yes, but hear your side, as well. And hear it deeply.

He’s also telling his Arab audience: You don’t own passion. You don’t own attachment. You don’t own history. Don’t be fooled by our power and our success. We may not have the drama of permanent victimhood, but we’re just as crazy in love with this land as you are. There’s room for both loves. We must find it. But first we must hear one another.

The book, then, offers us a road map to mutual empathy, an empathy earned the hard way, by confronting deep and uncomfortable truths.

Yes, the conflict may look intractable, but our conversations don’t need to be embittered. If we hear more carefully, more deeply, we can find redemption in the very act of encountering different voices. We can learn to converse with empathy, to love without sacrificing complexity.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is, ultimately, a book about how to love.

‘Transparent’ finds new conflicts on trip to Israel

Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Over the course of its four seasons, “Transparent” has been creating groundbreaking conversation about gender identity, telling the story of a family in which one parent is going through gender transition. It’s also become known as one of the “Jewiest” shows on TV, pushing deeper into issues of secular Jewish identity and introducing many to epigenetics, the idea that trauma — in many Jewish cases, Holocaust suffering — is hereditary, passed down from the generation that experienced it, to echo in future generations.

These conversations are complicated, and with the fourth season now available on Amazon Prime, “Transparent” adds another controversial topic: the Israel-Palestine conflict. (The following includes spoilers from Season Four.)

Throughout the series, the Pfeffermans have struggled with boundaries, definitions and fluidities; characters push against and dismantle binaries, rejecting constructs like “black/white” or “male/female” in favor of multiplicity and expanded perspectives. In Season One, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) transitioned to become Maura, a decision that reshapes the family journey moving forward.In the new season, Maura is invited to speak at a conference in Israel and makes a discovery that further impacts the definition of family. The Pfefferman children — Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) — struggle with nonconforming identities and relationships.

The tour bus full of Pfeffermans shleps with it the traditional baggage of old and new American-Jewish perspectives on Israel: An older generation argues for Israel’s position as a safe home for Jews after pogroms and the Holocaust but is unable to see any nuance to the current conflict and is unwilling to criticize the Israeli government. The young see the black and white of suffering and inequality, whether it’s a stark imbalance of Western Wall plaza space for women or oppression of Palestinians.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian storyline, the Palestinian narrative gets the most visibility. In Ramallah, the youngest Pfefferman, Ali, hears stories from her activist friends and the Palestinians who live there, of Israelis blackmailing Palestinians and exploiting their vulnerabilities, such as sexual orientation, to recruit them as informants, and that some of them can’t visit Jerusalem without permits. She asks if checkpoints are “along the border” and is quickly corrected that “there is no actual internationally recognized border, just one big, ugly wall and hundreds of checkpoints all over the place.” It’s life on the ground for the Palestinians and their activist friends, without any larger context: There’s no acknowledgment of why the wall is there, and the one person who says, “Not every Israeli is here to get rid of Palestinians” is all but drowned out as others talk over her.

Responding to her family saying that Israel was created to be a safe place for Jews post-persecution, Ali says, “We do not need to make the Palestinians unsafe just so the Jews can be safe.” But there’s no discussion of the reason for the existence of the divider and the outcome, that it is believed to have increased security for Israel by severely curtailing suicide bombings (although violence continues, as this week’s shooting in the West Bank demonstrates).

Ali always has been the millennial searcher, looking for truth, equality, love and acceptance. Her sense of right and wrong is only partly innate, and ignited and amplified by the people she meets and loves. But it would have been even more interesting if she had to navigate conflicting narratives, each of which was making compelling — and passionate — points and presented by people with whom she shares a peer-level respect and an emotional connection.

These scenes paint an unbridgeable gap: The previous generation is living in the past, unable to step away from its narrative to see any negative outcome, and the younger generation is passionate about Palestinian rights as part of an overall quest for justice but divorced from the region’s history as context. Each perspective sees no other choice; each perspective has its valid points and its blindnesses, all forged in history and emotion, with no room for nuance or compassion.

In real life in the modern American-Jewish community, when it comes to “the conflict,” there are extreme positions that mirror the extremes in the Pfefferman clan. But those of us who don’t adhere to edges or subscribe to extremes are, perhaps, more silent because we’re seeing both sides but don’t have answers, and perhaps more disturbingly, don’t have any confidence that either side is willing to listen.

Throughout, the Pfeffermans’ visit to Israel is underscored by the songs of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a soundtrack both geographically appropriate and subversive as a score for a Jewish family’s tour of the Holy Land. For example, take “Everything’s Alright.” Its lyrics — “Try not to get worried/try not to turn on to/problems that upset you, oh/don’t you know/everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine” — indicate a kind of wishful thinking. “Close your eyes/close your eyes/and relax/think of nothing tonight” may be a good, in-the-moment coping strategy for a fictional, rock ’n’ roll opera Jesus, but it doesn’t solve systemic problems, whether they are Pfefferman family conflicts or regional ones.

Much has been written about the unlikability and selfishness of these characters. “Transparent” is intentionally disruptive and seems built to make the characters, and viewers by extension, uncomfortable, making it a perfect tonal match for the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which self-interest is a necessary guiding principle and discomfort reigns as conversational default.

If there’s one thing we should be learning from the Pfeffermans, it is perhaps that pushing against social limits and rejecting binary definitions, even — or especially — in a conflict as emotional and deeply rooted as the one in the Middle East, reveals the space between extremes. It is there, not at one pole or another, that we can do our individual work in discovering identity and exercise our sense of nuance and compassion.

Nathan Englander interview: A novel’s view of Israel-Palestine conflict

Nathan Englander. Photo from nathanenglander.com

More words may have been written about the Israel-Palestine conflict than there are grains of sand at the beach, but to Nathan Englander there is still room on bookshelves for a novel that stirs the emotions and invites the empathy so often lost in the conflict’s polemics. 

[MORE: Love story meets thriller over Englander’s ‘Dinner’]

“Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” the author’s fourth and latest book, is a political thriller that examines the conflict from the perspectives of a renegade Mossad agent, a young Palestinian activist and a multitude of characters swept up in the conflict’s moral vortex. Englander spoke with the Journal about the challenge of writing through controversy and his commitment to peace, now stronger than ever, in today’s fractured political landscape. 

Jewish Journal: The Israel-Palestine conflict is among the most fraught and nuanced subjects for a novel. What compelled you to write about it? 

Nathan Englander: I moved to Israel [from New York] in 1996 for the peace process, because I was just so excited for this brand-new day and peace in the Middle East. It sounds almost like a utopian vision now, but [peace] really was happening and really right there.

Over the years, the whole thing came apart. Peace between Israel and Palestine and the idea of a two-state solution fell apart, and now the opposite of progress continues to be made. I moved home [to the United States] sort of heartbroken about that in 2001.

For 20 years, I’ve always wanted to explore this conflict and my own internal belief in peace, because I don’t know what other position there is to hold. What I’ve watched over these last two decades is that the two sides separate more and more. Every day going by, every week, the people understand each other less. A physical wall has gone up — Gaza’s closed off, there’s a wall between the West Bank and Israel, there are roadblocks. Even though there was occupation and many of the same issues [in the past], people still mixed more. There was just so much more sharing of the daily life. To me, this book was a way to explore these notions of empathy on both sides.

JJ: What does this book add to the noise of opinions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict? What’s the fresh angle?

NE: I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to give answers or to give opinions. In fact, when a writer has answers, I think the work ends up being corrupted. It becomes didactic. What a book does is share a consciousness and invite people to explore the questions as best as you can. This book is not my answer; it is my optimistic lament for lost peace.

Every book is vulnerable and every book is nerve-wracking, but I’ve never been both so excited and terrified to have a book coming into the world. It’s an expressly loaded subject, one on which you can’t win. Even with people on the same side — my editor was telling me about her sweet Israeli in-laws who both read the book and got into an argument over it. If all goes well, there will be arguments. 

JJ: Did you have to change your writing style at all in handling such a nuanced topic? 

NE: I was looking for a way to tell this story for a long time because I didn’t want it to be didactic or turn into a history lesson. Nobody needed a 500-page lecture from me on peace in the Middle East. Finally, when it came to me, it was such a departure from my other books in so many ways. It’s sort of like a literary thriller that’s also a metafictional historical novel that ends up being a love story that turns into an allegory. 

I think in circles and speak in circles. When I wrote my first book [“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”], I studied how to be linear and tell a story straight. This is my fourth book, and I was like, “I finally get to keep my circles,” because the conflict is so circular. Whichever way I start a sentence is going to upset someone — if I say, “Israel attacks Palestine” or “Palestine attacks Israel,” someone will be like, “They started first” or “No, they started first.” Who cares at this point who started first? It’s this endless, heartbreaking cycle that just happens again and again as if it’s new. 

That’s why I wanted the book to swing from side to side. It’s not even two sides — I don’t think there are many sides when it comes to Nazis or neo-Nazis, where there’s only one side that’s functional — but there are two peoples here, and there are many sides among those peoples.

JJ: While you were writing, was your target audience Jews or non-Jews, or both? 

NE: When somebody asks a variation of “Who do you write for?” I always feel like the writer got trapped into putting a form on something that has no form. Certain things are amorphous.

If a story is functioning, it better be universal. I can’t control how an Israeli will feel about the book, or a Palestinian or a left-wing person or a right-wing person. But if a story is working, it should travel across time, across space, across language, across gender, across belief.

JJ: You said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Tribune that you feel strongly that Judaism is not your subject, your characters just happen to be Jewish. Is that still your position after writing a book about Israel? 

NE: I still stand by that statement. I think it shows more about why it’s being asked than whatever my answer is. Nobody would take a John Updike book and say, “I want to give this to my Jewish friend, but can they read this?” Or they don’t say, “Oh, I love Voltaire, but my friend’s not French and he’s not dead and he’s not 300 years old, so can I give him ‘Candide’?” You just read a book. Some people tell me, “I love your book. Can I give it to my friend who’s not Jewish?” You wouldn’t ask that in the reverse.

Still, this is the book where I feel most like a Jewish writer because of what’s happening in this country right now. Now that some things [in American society] are being let out of the darkness where they belong, I claim [the Jewish label] that much more.

JJ: What is it exactly about current events that makes you embrace that niche label?

NE: A sign of democracy in danger is how our president keeps threatening journalists and tweeting disturbing photos about hurting journalists. The reason people get afraid of writing real, honest journalism and fiction, and the reason corrupted people and demagogues are afraid of journalism and fiction and poetry across the world, is because it is a subversive form.

Writing travels. You can enter into a world far different from your own and understand that there is a reality other than the one you have been spoon-fed. I grew up in a closed, religious, suburban world — I call it a terrarium or a bubble — and opening books just blew my mind open. It just opened universes to me. 

JJ: How were you able to write Palestinian characters and understand a Palestinian’s perspective?

NE: It is hugely important to me what it means to identify, what it means to enter other cultures, what it means to co-opt. I’m not writing this book and pretending to be Palestinian. I do believe writing is a moral act, both your obligation to it and where it comes from.

But all I can tell you is that I write from the heart and put my whole heart and soul into each character equally. There’s no way to work if I am so limited.

JJ: The book’s dust jacket describes a “nice American Jewish boy from Long Island.” Is that an autobiographical character? 

NE: One of the main characters is Prisoner Z, a boy from Long Island who joins the Mossad and ends up betraying it. There was a public story [in 2010] about a real Australian agent in the Mossad called Prisoner X, who was accused of being a traitor. I got to thinking what it would be like if someone like me had joined the Mossad.

I wanted to close in on what it would take for someone like me — someone who moves to a different country, who’s so ideological and so believes in what that country is about that they join its secret service — to flip on the ethical front. What could they hear or see or empathize with the other side that would cause them to turn on their own?

JJ: How have your attitudes toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed over the course of writing this book? 

NE: Oh, God. I can’t tell you how much, over time, my views have changed. It’s been a long evolution of ideas based on experience, and this book was a way for me to re-ponder and re-explore my positions on a million fronts.

It’s impossible for [young people] to have a memory when peace was really happening and on the horizon. It was over when [their] life began. Two-state seems impossible now, and peace between Israel and Palestine seems a ridiculous notion. That’s something I refuse to let go of, and if you think that’s a romantic notion or a naive notion, I don’t know what better idea anyone has.

But I can tell you, if it keeps building toward extreme conflict, someone’s going to win. Maybe that’s the point of the book — to say, “We should really make peace, because without it, someone is gonna win.” And I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want both peoples to have bright and open and hopeful futures.

Bullshit detectors at the Temple Mount

A man installs metal detectors at an entrance to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Consider the following facts:

Last week, three Israelis — Muslim Arabs — opened fire at policemen in the Old City of Jerusalem, killing two. They then ran into the Temple Mount, where they were also killed.

The Temple Mount was closed for prayer for a day and a half and then reopened.

It was opened for Muslim worshipers on July 16, but restrictions on Jewish visits remain (on July 17, the first Jews were allowed to enter).

Israel acted quickly to assure all its Arab neighbors that the status quo in the Temple Mount is not going to change.

Now a question: Did Israel act reasonably and cautiously amid a deadly terrorist attack in one of the holiest places on earth?

And another question: Is it not reasonable to suggest, after the attack, that security measures at the Temple Mount should be tightened?

Of course it is reasonable. And that is what Israel proposes — or demands — to do. It installed metal detectors at the entrance to the site to prevent visitors and supposed worshippers from smuggling weapons into the place — as Israel suspects some did. Israel also intends to install cameras to monitor the Temple Mount compound.

For some reason, the new equipment “fanned criticism and protests that Israel had unilaterally changed the rules regarding religious worship and tourist visits at the complex.” The logic behind the criticism was simple: “This is a severe violation of the status quo,” said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Temple Mount.

Indeed – it is. A change for the better, a change that Muslim authorities should have embraced, unless there is something they want to hide from the cameras or a reason for them to evade the detectors. In other words, ask not why Israel insists on installing new security measures around the compound — ask why the Muslim authorities respond to these measures with such rage.

The answer to this question is also simple. The metal detectors are truly bullshit detectors. They signal that the Temple Mount is not just a holy compound of worship — it is also, and at times even more so, a political tool with which to hammer Israel. Three years ago, as I was writing about Netanyahu’s highly cautious policy in the Temple Mount, I explained that “the Palestinians keep building a campaign of lies around the Temple Mount — by denying any Jewish connection to the site and alleging that Israel seeks to dismantle the mosques on top of the Mount. This campaign has an intellectual component: to present the Jews of Israel as a colonizing force that has no historical, religious or cultural claim to the land. And it has a practical component: utilizing a made-up threat to the Mount to rally the Arab street against Israel.”

So now the metal detectors are the new tool by which to manufacture a made-up threat to the Mount. The ultimate goal of the detectors’ opponents is not to heighten security or prevent bloodshed, it is to delegitimize Israel’s rule of the Old City. Just listen to what the Palestinians say: “Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy head of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, told Palestinian media that the detectors were ‘illegitimate.’ He said security would only be ensured by preventing the entry of ‘settlers’ and removing ‘Israeli soldiers’ — Border Police officers stationed at the site — from the compound.”

There you have it. The issue is not security. Israel is the one concerned with security — but the other side is not. The other side sees the terror attack at the compound as an opportunity to further its claim against Israeli presence in Jerusalem. If you remove all the “settlers” — that is, all Israelis — and all “soldiers” — that is, Israel’s security forces — from the area, there will be security. Simply put: no Jews, no bloodshed.

This is a tricky situation to handle. Israel does not wish, nor intends to agree, to a proposed abandonment of the site most holy to Jews. Israel cannot let the Palestinians intimidate it by using Temple Mount strife as an impending threat over its head. On the other hand, the Mount could be a real fuse that ignites a great fire. And maybe this fire, focused on the Temple Mount, is exactly what Israel’s enemies hope to see. They want to prove to the world one of two things: that Israel does not control the Temple Mount — or that Israel should control Temple Mount.

In other words, the metal detectors are an opportunity for Israel’s enemies to make the point they are trying to make: If Israel removes the metal detectors after protestations and threats, that’s proof that it does not really control the compound. If Israel does not remove the detectors — and as a result violence ensues and blood is spilled — that’s proof that Israel should not control Temple Mount.

Thus, Israel proceeds with caution. For now.

‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ makes leap from stage to screen

Aaron Davidman plays 17 characters from the U.S., Israel and the West Bank in the film “Wrestling Jerusalem.” Photo by Ken Friedman

It’s not easy to adapt a one-man play to a feature-length film. The intensity of a live performance can get lost in such a visual medium as cinema. Yet somehow, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” which conveys the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict through a series of dramatic monologues, manages to translate to the big screen.

Writer and performer Aaron Davidman, the only actor in the film, plays 17 characters from the United States, Israel and the West Bank. These voices offer unique political, social and religious perspectives on a long-simmering feud in a volatile corner of the world.

There’s Jacob, an older American who rails at the double standard Israel is held to; Ibrahim, a Palestinian whose family’s orchards were destroyed to build the separation wall; and Arnon, an Israeli special forces commander who explains why civilian casualties are regrettable but unpreventable. There’s also a farmer, a physician and a United Nations worker.

For each character, the redheaded, goateed Davidman speaks with a different accent and cadence; some suggest reasons to be hopeful and others offer only anguish and despair.

“Cinema is just a totally different art form,” he said, comparing the new film to the stage version. “It was exciting to explore the subtleties of the close-up, and the intimate, internal lives of these characters that you can’t get to in the theater.”

There also are scenes in vast desert landscapes, which on a big screen conveys the emotional journey of these characters. “Film can hold the epic nature of this conflict and the searching questions that are in the middle of the conflict,” Davidman said.

The play premiered at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco in March 2014. Davidman toured with it for a year before it was filmed by director Dylan Kussman. He and Davidman have been friends and collaborators for more than 25 years. They considered casting actors to play the different characters but ultimately decided against it.

“The power of it is that all these characters are in one person,” Kussman said. “And it’s ultimately this statement about multiplicity, about simultaneously holding conflicting ideas within ourselves, and why that’s a powerful tool for advancing a conversation about a very difficult and complex subject.”

The movie was shot in 10 days in 2015. Half of that time was spent in the Mojave Desert, which served as a stand-in for the Negev. The other scenes take place at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. They shot for two days in a dressing room, in which Davidman addresses himself in the mirror, and three days onstage, including a performance in front of a sold-out crowd.

The movie is shot simply, using three cameras, with lighting and sound design adding to the drama. The props include only a few pieces of furniture in the desert: a row of bus seats, a desk and a chair, and a table with an umbrella. Throughout the film, Davidman wears only a tan button-down shirt and khaki pants, causing him to nearly disappear amid the sand and rocks.

Davidman and Kussman both found inspiration in another screen adaptation of a solo show, Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” directed by the recently deceased Jonathan Demme. That film, made 30 years ago, shows Gray seated at a desk in a theater, recounting stories over a soundtrack composed by Laurie Anderson.

Without that film, “there would be no ‘Wrestling Jerusalem,’ ” Kussman said. “I really believe that. Because when we went through the really gut-checking conversation of, ‘Can you translate a one-man show to film?’ I kept on saying to myself, ‘Demme did it.’ ”

“That movie was so important in the theater world, of [showing] look what you can do,” Davidman added. “Of course, we wanted to go beyond that, we didn’t want to just be sitting in the theater … but that was a point of departure, for sure.”

Davidman and Kussman are developing another film project, which Davidman described as “a psychological thriller involving white nationalism and the re-emergence of Jews in Poland.”

Davidman also has been working with Google’s executive training department, screening “Wrestling Jerusalem” and leading discussions with global executives as part of a series of workshops called “Leading in Complexity.”

“They’ve got complex problems they’ve got to solve,” he said. “To look at this piece, not so much because it’s Israel-Palestine, but because it holds multiple perspectives, because it has compassion for people that are different from you, and because it models one person embodying so many points of view, that’s what they’re really excited about and interested in.”

Davidman estimates he has performed the show live 142 times. He always ends with an audience discussion about the issues at the heart of “Wrestling Jerusalem.” Allowing people to take time to reflect, listen and engage with others who may not share their perspectives is the most profound aspect of the project, he said, and several of the film screenings also will end with discussions.

“I see myself as a vessel for the audience, who want to dig deeper, or have questions, or feel moved, or are upset, or whatever they are,” Davidman said. “I don’t want to explain the movie, but I’m happy to help take the conversation further … especially now. We’re not doing that in public. We’re dismissive of people that don’t agree with us. We’re contemptuous of the other side. We don’t have time for it. And I’m asking people to enter into this narrative with me and then be brave enough to stay curious.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will screen from May 12-18 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. The official L.A. premiere will be on May 13. For more information about showings, go to wrestlingjerusalem.com.

 

Trump the change agent looks positively traditional on Middle East peace

President Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore (via WikiCommons).

Trump administration rhetoric about Israeli-Palestinian peace is typical of a president who would make everything great: President Donald Trump is going to bring about a “historic” deal, the White House has said, one that would “reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”

What isn’t typical, at least for a president who has shattered conventions in so many other sectors, is how typically Trump is going about reviving talks.

Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer and trusted longtime adviser to Trump, is in the region drumming up interest in new talks, and he’s partying like it’s 1989.

Press Israel to limit settlement building? Check.

Emphasize economic capacity-building for the Palestinians? Check.

Talk about a grand deal involving the surrounding Arab-Sunni states? Check.

Except for the hyperbole, the statements emerging from Greenblatt’s “listening” tour of the region this week could have been lifted from boilerplate dating back to the administration of George H.W. Bush, the first president to get Israelis and Palestinians into the same room, and through his successors, including Bill Clinton, Bush’s son and Barack Obama.

“I have a lot of differences with this administration on a lot of issues, but on the issue of Israel and Palestinians, they have been probably more cautious and more responsible than on almost any other issue,” Daniel Shapiro, who was the Obama administration envoy to the region from 2011 until January, said in an interview.

“It’s striking to hear quite similar language in describing their approach, their goals, their understanding of the relationship between the issue of settlements and prospects for success in negotiations,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior visiting fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Trump’s pro-Israel supporters hailed his election as an opportunity to reset the relationship between the two countries. Israel’s right crowed after his victory, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett saying it was a chance for Israel to “retract the notion of a Palestinian state.”

Settlements were a key bone of contention between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, culminating in December when the U.S. allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass an anti-settlements resolution.

Nothing quite so contentious has emerged yet in the Trump-Netanyahu relationship, but it hasn’t disappeared, either. Trump straight out asked Netanyahu to hold off on settlement building for a while when they met at a White House summit last month, and Greenblatt raised the issue in his five-hour meeting on March 13 with Netanyahu.

“With respect to settlements, we see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point,” Marc Toner, the State Department spokesman, said this week.

Other differences in tone and emphasis are emerging between the Trump and Netanyahu governments.

After Greenblatt met March 14 with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. readout of the meeting said they “reaffirmed the commitment of both the Palestinian Authority and the United States to advance a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Notably, Netanyahu — who has made no secret of his preference for Trump over Obama — has spent the three years since the collapse of the last round of talks saying Abbas appears anything but committed to advancing peace.

Jewish officials who favor the new administration’s Israel posture say they see a difference in how Trump and his team emphasize the need for Abbas to tamp down Palestinian incitement, particularly the payments handed out by the Palestinian Authority to families of imprisoned or killed terrorists.

“President Abbas committed to preventing inflammatory rhetoric and incitement,” the meeting readout said.

But the notion that Obama downplayed incitement was always something of a myth. Obama and his top officials repeatedly decried incitement, as recently as his farewell speech to the United Nations in September. Those calls, however, tended to receive less media coverage than his tensions with Netanyahu.

There are some differences in tone — most dramatically in how Trump has retreated from explicitly endorsing the two-state solution.

Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, said that should be seen less as a rejection of the two-state outcome than a means of returning the ball to the court of the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“All that Donald Trump said” to Netanyahu “was, ‘If you’re comfortable with it, I’m comfortable with it,’ ” Pletka said. “And Netanyahu is comfortable with it. What he didn’t say was, ‘Here’s a two-state solution; it will look like this.’ ”

The Obama administration grated on Israel by prescribing the outlines of the two states — although even that pressure had diminished after the last round of talks collapsed in 2014.

Pletka said one reason for the lack of surprises from Trump on the Middle East is his focus on other areas of security and foreign policy, where he is trying to bring about real and dramatic change, including limiting the intake of immigrants and refugees, pulling out of multilateral trade deals, recalibrating ties with China and raising the stakes in the fight with the Islamic State (ISIS).

“Those are issues he deeply cares about,” she said. Another factor was the administration’s slowness in filling second- and third-tier jobs in national security and foreign policy; the delay would inhibit the advancement of dramatic policy changes.

Shapiro said Trump and his team were learning that ideological postures taken during a campaign bang up against reality after the election.

Combating incitement, limiting settlement expansion, seeking a broader buy-in to peace by Israel’s Sunni-Arab neighbors and advancing two states “are structural U.S. interests; they are not ideological fixations of one administration or another, one that any administration interested in U.S. interests in the region will coalesce around,” Shapiro said.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directs the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said Trump — who is meeting with an array of Arab leaders in coming weeks — is seeking Arab investment in his bid to crush ISIS.

“Every administration comes into office, they confront the array of American interests and partners in the Middle East, and it makes it hard for them to do what they want to do if Arab-Israeli conflict is at risk of becoming an Arab-Israeli conflagration,” said Wittes, who was a senior Middle East policy official in Obama’s first term.

“One of the things Arabs always ask a new administration is, ‘Please avoid doing things on the Arab-Israeli issue — and tell the Israelis not to do things that would create a crisis,’ ” she said. “That, which would be a normal thing for Arab governments to do, is magnified by the anti-ISIS imperative,” she said.

Jeff Ballabon, a Republican with deep ties in the Orthodox Jewish community who advocated for Trump, said the narrative of same-old, same-old was deceptive.

“I have tremendous faith in the president as a negotiating prodigy,” he said, referring to Trump’s decades as a real estate dealmaker. “They clearly have America’s and Israel’s best interests at heart. We finally have a team that’s realistic and isn’t beholden to any failed past policies.” 

Netanyahu’s Tactical Mistake

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a major tactical blunder when he pushed through the vote in the Likud Party central committee to the effect that they would no longer discuss or consider the future establishment of a Palestinian state as a means to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not only did he lose public support inside Israel, not only did he lose the international image he has taken so long to build up in the foreign news media, especially in the United States, but more important than all that, he tried to force his party into adopting a policy that is passé. The decision of the Likud Party was, to put it simply, meaningless.

Veteran hawk, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had no problem opposing the Netanyahu proposal, even if it clashes with his own long-term ideological position on the issue of a Palestinian state. Sharon has, since coming to power, mentioned the future establishment of such a state — even if his version of such a state is unlikely to be accepted by the Palestinians because it probably falls far short of their expectations — because everyone knows that, if and when this conflict is ever to be resolved, it will only be through complete physical separation between the two peoples and their respective territories — the two-state solution.

The two-state solution has become accepted by all — the international community, the Palestinians and the vast majority of Israelis — precisely because it is a realistic solution to the conflict. People are gradually moving away from the radical ideological positions they have held for so long and are coalescing around a centrist position based on realism. Fewer people today believe that Israel can, or should, continue to control three million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, regardless or not of whether they believe that this is part of a Greater Israel promised to their forefathers by God many thousands of years ago. Equally, fewer people believe that a single binational democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is a feasible possibility in today’s political climate, even if they truly believe that this is the only just solution to the conflict.

The return to violence and terrorism during the past 18 months has brought more and more people to understand that the only way forward to some sort of future regional stability is for ultimate separation between the two peoples into their own states, within each of which the respective governments will be responsible for their own affairs, maintaining law and order and ensuring that the “other” state is not, nor does it feel, threatened by activities taking place beyond the border.

Ten years ago, one couldn’t even talk about the idea of a Palestinian state amongst Israelis. But this is just one more of those issues that has been taboo in the past, and which has gradually become part of the public discourse as a result of the changing events within the region. Fifteen years ago, most Israelis couldn’t even think about the possibility of directly negotiating with, or talking to, the Palestinian representatives, and now it is second nature for many Israelis. Five years ago it was still taboo to even suggest that the issues of Jerusalem or refugee return could be discussed as negotiable topics, and yet they have all been firmly placed as part of the public discourse, despite the problematic and sensitive nature of these highly symbolic issues. The most recent taboo to bite the dust concerns the active role to be played by international peace-keeping forces if, and when, a new agreement is implemented on the ground. Public surveys show that Israelis are increasingly supporting the role of strong third-party intervention, whereas in the past, they would never have accepted such a move.

All of these issues — Palestinian state, Jerusalem, refugees, international intervention — have their own way of creeping into the public discourse and becoming part of the agenda. At first, they are usually attributed to the domain of the “radical” thinkers with no basis in reality. They are rejected as being non-negotiable, nondiscussable, by the mainstream politicians. Then they creep into the academic debate and, at the same time, are introduced again and again into political chat shows and on the op-ed pages of the newspapers. Then, some politicians begin to mention these ideas and they appear on the “informal” documents and proposals of back room, off-the-track negotiations as each side tries out new ideas on the other without making any formal commitment. And then they appear in the public opinion surveys that are so common in Israel, as a means of sounding out the wider population and gauging the level of support for such ideas. Once the taboo ideas get this far, they are part of the public agenda and there is absolutely nothing — certainly not a politically manipulated vote in the Likud Party meeting — which can do anything to turn the clock back and remove them from the public debate or from the negotiating agenda.

If there is to be a return to political negotiations when the current bout of violence comes to an end, then there cannot be any issue which either side wants to raise and which is not placed firmly on the table. Back at Oslo, some major issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, etc., were put off to a later date, because it was felt they were too sensitive to discuss at such an early stage of the negotiations. But all of these issues have now become part of the public debate. Netanyahu — in his attempt to remove the debate over a Palestinian state from the negotiating agenda — simply proved that he didn’t understand the way in which public discourse is created and legitimized and, as such, has proved beyond a doubt that he will never be a prime minister to bring peace to the troubled land of Israel.

David Newman is chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. He recently visited Los Angeles.