November 20, 2019

Looking on the bright side of the Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations

If you think of Israel as a football team and American Jews as its fans, the time has come to buy seats on the 50-yard line, paint your bare chest blue and white, and start screaming for the team.

Why now?  Because Israel is weeks  away from facing a historic opportunity, and it needs all of its fans to come out and support the right plays.

Despite what the professional doomsayers tell us, the vast majority of American Jews do care about the State of Israel. Some just care more than others — in fact, they obsess over it. But the largest group pays attention only when there’s a crisis, which usually means a war. Then, their support is spontaneous and fervent. In 1967, in the first 48 hours of the Six-Day War, President Lyndon B. Johnson received 17,445 letters — 96 percent of them in support of Israel. In more recent conflicts, American Jews have raised millions of dollars and mobilized tens of thousands of bodies into the streets whenever they believed Israel’s existence was at risk.

Now is one of those times, only this time it’s not about war. It’s about peace.

The details of the agreements Secretary of State John Kerry is working out between the Israelis and the Palestinians have not yet leaked — yet another sign of just how serious these negotiations are. But people close to the negotiations intimate that this time it’s different. Kerry has come up with thoughtful ways to address Israel’s security concerns in the Jordan Valley, and the Americans, together with both Western European and Arab states, are offering substantial financial incentives to the Palestinians.  

Perhaps because of the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, the vast majority of American Jewry has not weighed in. That has left the field to the die-hard, pro-Israel groups who, since Kerry began his mission, have relentlessly harped on all the dangers: The withdrawal from Gaza led to Hamas’ election and rockets on Sderot. The Palestinians themselves are divided — and Hamas rejects the negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is weak and unpopular.  Withdrawing from the settlements will tear apart Israeli society. The chaos of Arab Spring makes the neighborhood even more unstable and withdrawal from the West Bank too risky.  

These objections are not easily dismissed, but they do obscure something that I believe is even more important: The Benefits.

We Jews tend to focus on the bad. Show us a beautiful face, and we’ll see the tiny mole — surely incipient melanoma. When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, our debate is always about the risks and the loss, never about what Israel — and Jews — stand to gain.

During a lunch last week, I talked this over with retired Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. Yatom was in town to speak on behalf of J Street, the American lobbying group that has been campaigning in support of the Kerry negotiations. At 68, Yatom has a gravelly, commanding voice and a soldier’s erect bearing. He commanded the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank during the First Intifada, served as a key security adviser to Yitzhak Rabin and led Mossad from 1996 to 1998.

In other words, if you are reading this and think I’m just going off on some mushy-headed liberal rant, then please explain what barricade you were manning when Danny Yatom carried out the Iron Fist policy that crushed the First Intifada.

As Yatom started to enumerate the benefits of an agreement, I interrupted him. All we ever focus on, I said, are the risks. Here was a man with deep security credentials saying, “Look at the bright side.” Assuming the Kerry plan hews closely to previously attempted agreements, here is what Israel stands to gain from Kerry’s initiative:

It will protect Israel as a democratic Jewish state. This is the core benefit: Separating the Israelis and the Palestinians into two states preserves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 

It will preserve Jerusalem. Rhetoric about “united Jerusalem” aside, if current trends continue, in 10 years, Jerusalem will have a majority Arab population. “The only way to save Jerusalem,” Yatom said, “is to divide it.”

It will increase pressure on Iran. With a peace treaty, the Arab states and the Palestinians will be able to join Western Europe and America in confronting Iran over nuclear weapons. 

It will weaken Hamas. As democracy and prosperity grow in the West Bank, the fundamentalist and rejectionist Hamas will look even less appealing to Palestinians in Gaza.

It will disarm the BDS movement.  A peace accord will take the steam out of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — or reveal the true eliminationist intent of its backers.   

It will increase Israel’s security. It’s far easier for the IDF to defend clear borders than to defend individual settlers across an indeterminate territory.  

It will improve Israel’s diplomatic standing and its economy. By making peace, Israel will normalize relations with 22 Arab nations and — perhaps — more than 50 Muslim nations. Israel’s current economy is astonishing, given the closed markets and limited trade it faces now. Imagine Israel’s GDP once those barriers come down.

It will ease relations between Israel and its most important ally, the United States. Is there a bigger sticking point in our alliance?  

It will draw the Jewish community, especially the next generation, even closer to Israel. All the Birthrights and bikinis and high-tech stories in the world won’t erase the fact that Israel is the only Western democracy occupying another people.

This is a historic opportunity. Write to your representative. Write to AIPAC. Write to the president.

If ever there was a time for the American-Jewish community to get in the game, it’s now.