Editor’s Notes: The fragmenting of US Jewry

By David Horovitz October 29, 2009

Obama’s outlook, and that of the two or three officials closest to him, would appear to follow the Meretz vision of a two-state solution rather than that of the governing Likud-Labor axis. Or, generalizing in the highly relevant shorthand of the day, it may mark the distinction between the J Street vision and that of AIPAC.

In a little over a week’s time, President Barack Obama will make the short journey from the White House to Washington’s Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, to address the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. In a warm and welcoming atmosphere, the president, who received such overwhelming support from Jewish voters in his election campaign – 78 percent, according to exit polls – will presumably speak to the large, attentive audience about the vitality of America’s Jewish community and its contribution to America, and about the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.

As previous presidents have done in speeches through the decades, he will probably stress the values shared by the two allied nations – the common commitments to democracy, to personal freedoms, to equality and tolerance – that bridge the geographical distance between them. And he will likely discuss the rewards awaiting Israel if only a path can be found to peace with the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular.

Much as his envoy, National Security Adviser James Jones, has argued on Obama’s behalf in a number of recent speeches, the president may well also assert that success in Israeli-Arab peacemaking could have extraordinarily wide repercussions – “ripples and echoes,” as Jones put it, potentially clearing a path to greater security, stability and harmony not only in the Middle East but across the globe. Notwithstanding the challenges in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan et al, Obama may even brand Israeli-Arab peacemaking, as Jones has done, his top priority – the global problem in most urgent need of a solution.

If he and his team have internalized some of the criticism emanating from Israel in recent months, he may do better than he did in his Cairo speech in June and speak of Israel’s legitimacy less as a response to centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, and more on the basis of the Jews’ historic connection to this land. He will likely highlight Palestinian rights, too, perhaps invoking a formulation along the lines of Palestinian children deserving hope and Israeli children deserving security.

The goal, he will likely say, is “two states living side by side in peace and security – a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.” These are the lines he delivered at the UN General Assembly last month, and that were repeated, absolutely word for word, in his UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s speech at Shimon Peres’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem last week.

As he has in the past, and again echoing previous presidents, Obama may note that time is short, that courage is required, that difficult sacrifices will have to be made. Doubtless he will pledge his own personal commitment, and that of his administration, to Israel’s well-being and to the cause of Middle East peace.

He will have meant every word of what he has said about supporting Israel. And he will be widely applauded for it.

WHAT MAY be left unsaid, however, is that this president, in contrast to his immediate predecessor, among others, does not appear persuaded that his commitment to Israel should extend to its expansion beyond pre-1967 dimensions.

Where president George W. Bush reached understandings with prime minister Ariel Sharon about facts on the West Bank ground – namely, the large Jewish population at certain major settlement blocs – precluding a return to the ’67 parameters, the Obama administration initially sought to shake off any such understandings. It then made emphatically plain its dim view of construction anywhere beyond the ’67 lines by demanding a complete halt to all settlement building, including in the major blocs and in east Jerusalem.

Strikingly, an ADL survey this week indicated, Americans may be far more skeptical than their president about the kind of “peace dividends” that might result from a freeze on settlements. The survey found that, even were all settlement construction to be halted, 53% of adult Americans believe leaders of the Arab world would continue to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and only 25% believe the Palestinians would be prepared to achieve a final resolution of the conflict.

For his part, then-candidate Obama set out his philosophy quite unmistakably when he spoke to me during his visit to Israel in July of last year. Asked whether Israel has a right to try and maintain a presence in the West Bank, for security, religious, historic or other reasons, he replied that “Israel should abide by previous agreements and commitments that have been made, and aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements that have been made previously… There are those who would argue that the more settlements there are, the more Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel’s long-term security.”

Elaborating what he would presumably consider to be a pragmatist’s position, he added that “Israel may seek ’67-plus and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.” The Palestinians, too, he went on, “are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going to fight for every inch of that ’67 border or, given the fact that 40 years have now passed, and new realities have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that may not perfectly align with the ’67 boundaries?”

That philosophy – the implied disapproval of an Israel seeking a West Bank “buffer” at the cost of “antagonizing” the other side, and thus potentially thwarting the prospects for peace – would seem to lie at the heart of the friction that has emerged between the Obama administration and that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. That, and the question of whether Netanyahu – “weighing” some kind of freeze down the road while limited building goes on for now, and yet to tackle illegal outposts – is serious about seeking an accord.

To put this into domestic Israeli political terms, Obama’s outlook, and that of the two or three officials closest to him, would appear to follow the Meretz view of a two-state solution rather than that of the governing Likud-Labor axis. Or, generalizing in the highly relevant shorthand of the day, it may mark the distinction between the J Street vision and that of AIPAC. (J Street’s claim this week to be the ideological kin of Kadima simply does not accord with its positions on settlements, the Gaza war or sanctioning Iran.)

These are differences that fall within the Zionist rubric, but what I’m crudely defining as the Obama-Meretz-J Street philosophy sits uneasily alongside the fact that the Arab world sought the destruction of Israel from 1948-1967, when there was no “occupation” and no “buffer.”

It is a philosophy that is hard to reconcile with the evidence of maximalist Palestinian territorial ambition, as reinforced in the bitter aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza – where the opportunity to build a fledgling, peaceable Palestinian democracy was dismissed, the chance to encourage Israelis to put their faith in territorial compromise eschewed, and instead violent confrontation pursued across the border.

It takes little account, either, of the practical complexities of defending a country that, in its narrowest parts, is barely nine miles wide. And it downsizes Jewish claims to the historic Judea and Samaria, and the assertion that the West Bank, rather than “occupied Palestine,” is disputed territory where no state was previously sovereign.

Again, there is a small, but not negligible proportion of the Israeli electorate that identifies with this outlook, and a (probably larger) proportion of supporters of Israel around the world that feels the same – that Israel can afford to try and defy bitter recent evidence and bid for an accommodation that returns it, more or less, to its pre-1967 parameters.

But the indications that the American government is urging such an effort, and is frustrated by Netanyahu’s disinclination to adopt it, are potentially highly divisive – to American-Israeli relations, and to American Jewry.

OVER RECENT years, as Israel has been drawn into combat in civilian areas – notably during Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002; the Second Lebanon War in 2006; and Operation Cast Lead this past winter – it has lost the sympathy of many hitherto supportive governments and opinion-shapers, including Jews, discomfited by images of mighty Israel confronting weaker forces. Increasingly, in Western European countries most of all, only those most committed to Israel – and most willing to make the intellectual effort to look past those terrible pictures of tanks and bloodied civilians, to understand a context in which callous, cynical enemies fight out of uniform and surrounded by their own civilians – have been prepared to resist peer pressure and stand by us.

But America was different. In contrast to Europe, where Israel has sometimes been fundamentally perceived as an expansionist colonial irritant in the Arab Middle East, America has regarded Israel more as a gutsy democracy in a sea of Arab hatred. And American Jews – across party lines, indeed with no reference to party affiliation – supported that gutsy Israel.

In the Obama era, differences are emerging. For supporters of Obama’s efforts at gracious engagement, notably with Iran, and for those who endorse his conviction that the US has too easily withdrawn the carrot and resorted to the stick in this part of the world, Israel can be an annoyance – that arrogant Netanyahu, so skeptical of Arab intentions, so insistent on building those settlements and frustrating the president’s will. And for some of Obama’s Jewish supporters – the three-quarters or so of American Jewry, that is, who are instinctive Democrats – the conflicting pressures are becoming wrenching.

The Washington-Jerusalem tensions may be relatively marginal for those Jewish Democrats for whom Israel is not a highly dominant issue. After all, while the two administrations may sometimes be at odds, they are not publicly at each other’s throats. If you don’t delve too deep, it remains eminently feasible to strongly identify with Obama and with Israel.

But those for whom Israel is front and center either voted for John McCain, with his unqualified support for the Jewish state and his robust positions on Iran, or voted for Obama with the conviction that his commitment to Israel was similarly unstinting. Now, some are being torn. Is Obama less of a true friend than they had hoped? Or is he right to pile pressure onto Israel, with the implication that the leadership in Jerusalem may not know what is best for the Jewish state? Should they be abandoning the president – and what, then, of their other Democratic values – or backing him?

The ADL survey, which found 67% of Americans endorsing a description of Israel as “a country to be counted on as a strong, loyal US ally,” underlines that it would be false to assert that, in Obama’s America, broad support for Israel is in decline or an issue of wide controversy. It may also be exaggerated to suggest that, for Jews in Obama’s America, support for Israel is starting to become a partisan issue.

But what kind of Israel, following which policies, toward which parameters for a permanent accord?

Those questions, for that majority of Jews in Obama’s America who voted Democrat and care a great deal about Israel, are emphatically becoming more fraught and divisive.

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