Saturday, January 9, 2016

It Has Been Quite the Week for Zionism in America

It started with the Frontline Program: Netanyahu at War. With great editing and sound Netanyahu at War depicts the dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Netanyahu and Obama came to power within weeks of each other in 2009. Operation Cast Lead--an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed 1,400--had just concluded. By the end of this year they will have butted heads for two entire terms of the Obama presidency. 

The dramatic focus of the two hour program is Netanyahu's speech to Congress last March wherein he attempted to convince the U.S. Congress to scuttle Obama's negotiations with Iran. "Outrageous, just outrageous!" says Dennis Ross; but he says it with an admiring twinkle, like we would say about a mischieveous son of whom we are not so secretly proud. As that opening scene suggests, Netanyahu at War gives a lot of rope to establishment Zionists who were opposed to the Iran deal, and who blame Obama for being naive and inexperienced and over his head and mistaken. The program primarily uses these enemies of Obama to revel in the personal clash between the two leaders. But in doing so, the Frontline program misses the real source of the conflict: namely the conflict between Obama's liberal Zionist goal of helping to create a separate Palestinian state on the one hand,  and on the other hand Netanyahu's unwillingness to give up any land, his intent to continue the occupation indefinitely in order to not give up land, and his unwillingness to grant citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in lieu of sharing the land.

Liberal Zionists who still think about a Palestinian state in order to achieve peace were represented on the program by Chemi Shalev (veteran Haaretz journalist), Peter Beinart, David Remnick (New Yorker), Sandy Berger (veteran Oslo negotiator from Clinton administration), as well as Palestinian Oslo negotiators Saeb Erakat and Diana Buttu. But the program does not use these people to make the case why the occupation must end now, and why it's absolutely imperative to move rapidly towards a two-state solution before it's too late; rather it uses them to dwell on the personality clash between the two leaders.

The religio-national Zionists who are hell bent on not giving up any part of the land to Palestinians, peace or no peace, and who are prepared to continue the occupation indefinitely are represented on the program by Netanyahu himself, by Likud majority leader Tzachai Hanegbi, by Michael Oren (former Ambassador to U.S. and MK for Kulanu), Dore Gold, and Ron Dermer (current Israeli ambassador to the U.S.). But the program does not use these people to make the case for permanent occupation, nor does it show them as having this view, rather it uses them to dwell on the personality clash between the two leaders.

Other people on the program play the middle. Ari Shavit is used to lament what a shame it is that these leaders could not get along, and how tragic it would be if, ten or twenty years from now the Iran deal turns out to have been a mistake. It's a red herring and the wrong message. What Shavit laments as a mysterious tragedy would be a lot less mysterious--if equally tragic--if the program explained the real conflict between these two men: Obama wanted to implement a two state solution, and Netanyahu wants to never give up land and is willing to continue occupation forever in order to hang onto the land.

For another liberal interpretation of the program, read Lisa Goldman at +972; for a conservative take on the program, compare J.J. Goldberg in The Forward

The program caused Peter Beinart to flesh out his views in an article in Haaretz. "It reminds me of a quote from the 2003 film Cold Mountain: “They made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say “Shit, it’s raining,’” said Binart.  He went on:
[B]efore Netanyahu’s election, 44 percent of Palestinians still believed that the PA would become a state. Within a year of his taking office, according to the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, that figure had dropped to thirty percent. It fell because, in the words of the late Ron Pundak, one of Oslo’s architects, “Netanyahu sabotaged the peace process relentlessly, and made every effort to delegitimize his Palestinian partners.” .... 
In 2008, Ehud Olmert had made the most far-reaching two-state offer ever by an Israeli prime minister. Abbas had made dramatic concessions too including on refugee return.
Then the Bibi wrecking crew returned. Netanyahu withdrew Olmert’s proposal and offered none in its place. Under international pressure, he endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in the summer of 2009, but emphatically rejected the idea that it would be based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps, thus rejecting the parameters that had guided every serious two state negotiation in the past. Then, in 2014, he declared that he no longer supports any Palestinian state at all.
Nothing like this appears in the Frontline program. Without this, the program lacked the necessary context to truely understand the clash between Obama and Netanyahu.

In the meantime, Chemi Shalev wrote his own bombshell this week: The Great Betrayal: American Jews stay Silent as Israeli Democracy Withers. 
The authoritarian campaign, waged by Israel’s ruling coalitions since Likud returned to power in 2009, has accelerated in recent months. It is now all-encompassing. It is being waged in the Knesset, in government ministries, in universities, in schoolrooms and in the media, both social and general. It includes legislative assaults on free speech, incitement against dissenters, the withholding of government funds for political reasons, regulatory measures against – and greater government control over – television and other media, compulsory changes to school curricula, reinforced Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs and repeated attacks on the Arab minority. All this is accompanied by the constant drone of victimhood and xenophobia emanating from Israeli cabinet ministers, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down…..

Yet American Jews have kept mostly mum as such events and countless other manifestations of this dangerous drift have unfolded in Israel. ….

I am not talking about groups such as the Zionist Organization of America, whose chairman Morton Klein wrote this week in support of Shaked’s offensive against “phony NGOs that seek to demonize the Jewish State with falsehoods.” I would not expect Klein, whose organization has been heavily funded by Sheldon Adelson and others of similar ilk, to be bothered by the blatant hypocrisy of a right-wing government exempting its own interventionist billionaires from its war against so-called “foreign intervention.” I would expect, perhaps naively, that other American Jews would be up in arms…. 
[There is a…] “fear and anxiety” gripping a sizable portion of Israelis as they watch their country grow estranged from the values embodied in the Declaration of Independence, a document increasingly derided and undermined by Israel’s new leaders. …. Of course, there are countless valid reasons as well as lame excuses for the American Jewish reluctance to confront the Israeli government or to dedicate funds or efforts to constrain it. First and foremost, it is not in the Jewish community’s nature. ….Perhaps American Jews remain unconvinced by the cries of anguish emanating from Israel’s peace camp; it is certainly more convenient for them to accept the government’s reassurance that it’s all much ado about nothing. And they can certainly point to the lack of any convincing counterbalance to Israel’s persuasive prime minister, someone who could rally the troops and enlist American Jews in a just war for decency and democracy.  
“We need a leader, we need a leader” is the mantra voiced nowadays by Israelis who oppose the government, and while it is an accurate reflection of the sad political situation of Israel’s center-left, it is also an excuse to continue sipping lattes and planning the next family trip abroad while moaning and doing nothing. If Israelis themselves aren’t up in arms, why should American Jews be bothered? 
One can empathize with many American Jews, especially older ones, who prefer to keep on supporting the Israel of their dreams, the Israel of their youth, while averting their eyes and ears from the clear and the present. And one can understand why they would prefer to postpone a confrontation with Israel as long as its very real enemies such as Iran and Hamas continue to threaten its security and perhaps its existence. That is the fight they are used to, the battle that they feel most comfortable with, the war that has kept them united for so many decades.
 But time is running out. By staying silent, by refraining from the kind of forceful, game-changing protest that the current situation warrants, American Jews are not only abandoning like-minded Israelis, they are betraying Israel itself. They don’t owe it to Israeli liberals to come to their aid: They owe it first and foremost to themselves. After all, the biggest existential danger facing the Middle East’s only Jewish and democratic state may not be Iran, but Israel itself. And the time for American Jews to cry foul and raise hell against a government that is running roughshod over Israel’s liberal legacy while intentionally alienating a large part of the population will soon be gone. Notwithstanding the thousand differences, it would not be the first time American Jews stayed silent and hoped for the best as clouds gathered and a storm threatened their brothers and sisters  – nor would it be the first time they came to regret it forever more.
These are tough words. "It hurts," says Jane Eisner at The Forward. Eisner is the executive editor of The Forward and it is her constituency that Shalev's salvo is aimed at. She penned a defensive article  highlighting Shalev's article, and passing the buck right back to the Israelis:
It may be that, as Shalev complains, liberal Jews here are too afraid of internal dissension, bowing to the right-wing argument that groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund only give succor to the enemy in their critique of Israeli officialdom, and that what is needed from the Diaspora is solidarity, not skepticism. And yes, some of this reticence is also driven by fear of alienating the powerful donors, mostly from the right, who increasingly dictate the contours and acceptability of American Jewish discourse. But that’s too simple..... Rightly or wrongly, many of us here view Israel’s security concerns, both internally and in the context of its very rough neighborhood, as mitigating factors in assessing civil liberties. ....We don’t worry about getting blown up riding the bus to work or at a cafĂ© one evening. We don’t send our children into harm’s way. We don’t have bomb shelters in the basement.....I don’t feel comfortable dictating Israeli policy any more than I want an Israeli dictating American policy. It’s not my civic duty to select and steer Israeli leadership, and I resent the implication from some Israelis that my political choices here should be derived solely from their reality. I similarly resent when Israeli leaders say they are acting on behalf of all Jews. 
But since I care deeply about Israel and believe that every modern Jew should develop and nurture his or her own relationship with Israel, I struggle to find the right balance of criticism and support. That struggle would be helped immeasurably if there were a vibrant, recognizable liberal movement within Israel to learn from and connect to, and if I could be convinced that my complaints from New York might have real consequences in Jerusalem. Instead, I see a demoralized Israeli left that needs to get its own act together before it demands more from us. 
Chemi Shalev comes right back at her. All we need to be is engaged witnesses when it comes to Israel's rightward slide, said Eisner. Shalev isn't buying it:
I guess it’s OK to be nothing more than “engaged witnesses” when things are hunky dory and everything is going swell; but when my house is on fire, or even when I’m just smelling smoke and starting to panic, I expect my good friends, never mind my close family, to drop everything and help put it out. I would certainly not expect them to feel resentful because I cried out for assistance or to start quibbling whether the people who actually live in the house were doing their fair share to stamp out the fire..... Seems I had erroneously ascribed the non-interference of liberal American Jews to an indifference I found infuriating; after reading Eisner, I realized that it wasn’t apathy I was dealing with, but ideology. And that is a whole different ballgame.....
Eisner believes that Israeli security concerns are “mitigating factors in assessing civil liberties,” though I question whether she would feel the same if it was her own civil liberties that were under siege. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said “those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”.... 
Israel has enough manpower and weaponry to protect itself from its external enemies; what it lacks are the troops, the arsenal and the combat morale that will enable it to fight for its democratic soul at the same time.
American Jews would do well to remember that if and when Israeli democracy goes off the rails irreversibly, they too will find themselves detached, depressed and wracked by guilt forever more. What will they tell their grandchildren when they ask how they allowed such a tragedy to happen? We didn’t feel completely comfortable? We thought it best that Israelis learn their lesson and deal with it by themselves?
Wow, what a week.  It's worth a subscription to Haaretz and The Forward.