The pro-Israel question is usually framed more as an assertion.
There’s the traditional: They’re not pro-Israel. Pro-Israel in name only. Self-described pro-Israel. Or the untraditional: Pro-Arab. Self-hating Israel bashers. Or the latest pro-Israel cinematic verisimilitude: J Street Challenge (which is a documentary film the “fair and balanced” Fox News might make) proves that J Street is anything but pro-Israel.
So let us recline, and turn our leftover shankbones to the right, toward D.C. and Capital Hill, where AIPAC seeds and plows its pro-Israel political field. It is a field that AIPAC believes it owns, and one where some of its more active members believe pro-Israel charlatans are too often trespassing. It is a field where AIPAC pro-Israel rules are seen as the best rules — time-tested, vetted, and supported by Israel. And pro-Israel rule number one is to have AIPAC viewed as holding exclusive pro-Israel naming rights: Just as the ADL (extension: Abe), is the go-to choice for anti-Semitic incidents, AIPAC needs to remain the go-to choice for Israeli issues.
But while the pro-Israel appellation is easy to adopt, it is no easier to understand and apply in practice than it is to judge who is and who isn’t pro-American. What are pro-American positions on Obamacare? Gun control? Drone strikes? Military actions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan or our avoidance of military actions in Syria, Iran and Crimea? Immigration reform? Prayer in schools? Abortion? Fracking?
If someone cares enough about the future of their country to sometimes disagree with its leaders’ decisions and even advocate for changes — although the over 50 Congressional votes to defund or end Obamacare might be a bit excessive — that’s quintessentially pro-American. As it is quintessentially pro-Israel to worry about how Israel can maintain both its democratic and Jewish character if a viable Palestinian state isn’t created before Israel’s “facts on the ground” — settlements, outposts, a growing right wing political shift — make it virtually impossible to do so.
It seems silly to have to point out that supporting Israel doesn’t require supporting all or even most of the positions of the Israeli government. Indeed, the vast majority of Israeli citizens wouldn’t qualify as pro-Israel if AIPAC-like support was the litmus test. So why countenance so many Joseph McCarthy doppelgangers effectively conducting a vast pro-Israel winnowing effort? How is Israel strengthened when diaspora support is weakened?
Howard, Morton, Abe, Malcolm and Marvin can have an almost perfect record of advocating for Israeli government positions. But their support, no matter how fervent, can still be anti- if some positions risk weakening Israel’s democratic and Jewish character. (Any first name references to actual people may be unintentional. Or not.)
So could there be another definition of what it means to be pro-Israel? (Oh wise child, here is where you can sneak your first glass of wine — the one disguised as grape juice — and a bite of your Hillel sandwich. Unless you are silly enough to ask another question, your part is over.)
AIPAC’s version of pro-Israel has meant that AIPAC focus hardest on actions that make Israel militarily stronger. That effort has worked well — Israel’s adversaries know that it can’t be beat. Israel is the 1972 Miami Dolphins, only with a stronger offense and defense (and absent a short, funny-looking field goal kicker.) What Israel struggles with, however, is trajectory. Not the trajectory of Israel’s missiles or bombs or the missiles and bombs Israel has to defend itself from. But Israel’s own trajectory as both a democracy and a Jewish homeland.
If Hobson were still alive to make a choice, he’d choose Israel. Israel can’t maintain its democracy if it continues to occupy large portions of the West Bank while affording Palestinians second class citizenship — subjecting them to restrictive laws and regulations with no political participation in Israeli elections. Yet, because Jews will no longer constitute a majority, Israel risks its Jewish character if it grants West Bank Palestinians the same rights as current Israeli citizens. That means that for Israel to survive as the Israel the U.S. and the diaspora now support, Israel’s only choice is to make the tough decisions that will make a two state solution more likely.
AIPAC’s hyper-focus on military threats has, perversely, left Israel exposed to a larger existential threat — the diminution of U.S. and diaspora support. Why would a more inwardly focused and less energy-dependent America (likely a net exporter by 2015), with an increasingly disinterested, distracted, divided and less supportive Jewish voting constituency, still feel compelled to continue its same level of support for Israel if U.S. and diaspora interests are no longer strongly impacted, or are, perhaps, even negatively impacted, by an unresolved conflict?
The pro-Israel, pro-U.S lines are not guaranteed to forever intersect. No amount of lobbying can prevent geopolitical changes or a continued attenuation of the bond between an Israeli population that no longer closely mirrors an increasingly secular, assimilated diaspora.
In private meetings during my most recent trips to Israel, several prominent Israeli political leaders (outside the current coalition) hammered this theme. They expressed strong concerns that Israel was in geopolitical and demographic denial. They particularly felt that some of Israel’s actions and inactions ( not only the Palestinian, settlements and Iranian issues, but also Israel’s outreach to Russia) were fraying a once solid U.S.-Israel bond.
A bipartisan group of experienced government officials — Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton, Brent Snowcroft, Paul Volcker, Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas Pickering, Theodore Sorensen, and James Wolfensohn — argued in “A Last Chance For A Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement”, a report issued by the U.S./Middle East Project, that the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the “gift that keeps on giving” to America’s enemies. In a nutshell (which is where, incidentally, many of the current Palestinian and Israeli leaders belong), they argue that solving the conflict won’t move radical regimes and militant groups to immediately become our friends and allies, but that it would help “drain the swamp in which (terrorist groups and other enemies) thrive, and eliminate a major source of global Muslim anti-Americanism.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres and lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni join many other Israelis who have referred to an unresolved Palestinian issue as presenting an existential threat to Israel’s survival as a democratic and Jewish country. Former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin has even said that the absence of a peace deal “poses a bigger existential threat than a nuclear Iran.”
Yet AIPAC’s existential threat oxygen has apparently been entirely exhausted on military threats, especially Iran. Complicated diplomatic maneuvers that may finally produce a Palestinian-Israel agreement are presented mostly in the context of the future military threats they could bring. Never mentioned is the threat to the U.S and diaspora relationship and to Israel’s own democratic, Jewish nature, if a peace agreement is not reached.
Israel’s survival, at least as a democracy that serves as the Jewish homeland, depends less on Israel’s military superiority than on achieving a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. Israel simply can not expect to use its military to indefinitely muscle its way forward. Today’s nuclear weapons are yesterday’s bow and arrows. Israel’s enemies, and the militant groups they support, will continue to acquire and build more and more dangerous weapons. And generational hatred will continue to march onward, unless Israel does something to arrest that trend.
Of course, the failures of the peace process to date are not all Israel’s fault. Palestinian leadership could most closely be defined as an oxymoron. Israel, however, is the far stronger bargaining party and the one in the best position and with the greatest need to effect movement toward an agreement that could eventually become Israel’s most powerful weapon, one that provides Israel with its greatest long-term security.
If AIPAC continues to almost exclusively define “pro-Israel” as helping Israel acquire and build advanced weapons systems and preventing Israel’s enemies from doing so, while at the same time virtually ignoring the long-term risks to Israel of operating as a colonial power in the West Bank, then AIPAC and its supporters risk leaving Israel as an empty shell, impossible to defend or support. Israel will be the democratic, Jewish homeland in name only. Future generations will question what it is exactly that they are being asked to support and defend — an Israel whose population will be primarily composed of ultra-right wing Jewish nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians, and whose leading supporters will be Christian Zionists.
It doesn’t have to end this way. There are still enough enlightened Israeli leaders and diaspora supporters to see that it doesn’t end this way. Precisely because Israel is strong, precisely because the Middle East is — even for the Middle East — in an advanced stage of chaos, is precisely why Israel should seize the opportunity to more aggressively pursue a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, one that can also bring a broader peace with the Arab League. “Concessions” Israel makes to stop settlement building or release Palestinian prisoners are truly concessions only if Israel believes it doesn’t have as much to gain from a peace agreement as do the Palestinians. Israel should consider both actions as investments in a better future.
So here’s my pro-Israel rule: Any person or organization that broadly supports Israel’s survival as a democratic state serving as the homeland for the Jewish people and who recognizes that a two state agreement more than a military solution best ensures that, gets circumscribed into my pro-Israel eruv — a less painful circum way of joining what I hope will be an expanding community. AIPAC’s positions must start to embrace that community if it wants to continue to claim that it is truly pro-Israel.