By Jeremy Ben-Ami
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Six decades ago, my father fought alongside Menachem Begin for Israel's independence. If you'd have told him back then that politicians in the world's last superpower would be jockeying today to see who can be more "pro-Israel," he would have laughed at you. Grateful as I am for decades of U.S. friendship with Israel, I have to wonder, as the state my father helped found turns 60, just who is defining what it means to be pro-Israel in the United States these days.
Some purported keepers of that flame claim that supporting Israel means reflexively supporting every Israeli action and implacably opposing every Israeli foe -- adopting the talking points of neoconservatives and the most right-wing elements of the American Jewish and Christian Zionist communities. Criticize or question Israeli behavior and you're labeled "anti-Israel," or worse. But unquestioning encouragement for short-sighted Israeli policies such as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank isn't real friendship. (Would a true friend not only let you drive home drunk but offer you their Porsche and a shot of tequila for the road?) Israel needs real friends, not enablers. And forging a healthy friendship with Israel requires bursting some myths about what it means to be pro-Israel.
1.American Jews choose to back candidates largely on the basis of their stance on Israel.
This urban legend has somehow become a tenet of American Politics 101, which is why politicians work so hard to earn the pro-Israel label in the first place. But it's a self-serving fable, cultivated by a tiny minority of politically conservative American Jews who actually are single-issue voters. Most Jewish voters make their political choices the way other Americans do: based on their views on the full spectrum of domestic and foreign policy issues.
Moreover, the American Jewish community still has a markedly progressive bent. Exit polls suggest that nearly 80 percent of Jewish Americans voted for John F. Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004; some 70 percent of them were opposed to the Iraq war in 2005, according to the American Jewish Committee; and polls show that most American Jews say they favor a more balanced U.S. Middle East policy that's aimed at achieving peace.
2.To be strong on Israel, you have to be harsh to the Palestinians.
Wrong, and counterproductive to boot. One popular way for members of Congress to earn their pro-Israel stripes is to come down as hard as possible on the Palestinians, by using economic and diplomatic pressure or giving the Israelis a freer hand for military strikes. That may satisfy some primal urge to lash out at Israel's foes, but it does Israel more harm than good.
As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has argued, Israel's survival depends on offering the Palestinians a more hopeful future built on political sovereignty and economic development. As long as Palestinians despair of a decent and dignified life, Israel will be at war. And as long as the only channel for the Palestinians' ingenuity is building better rockets, not even the Great Wall of China will protect Israel's cities from their wrath. Helping the Palestinians achieve a viable, prosperous state is one of the most pro-Israel things an American politician can do.
3.The Rev. John Hagee and his fellow Christian Zionists are good for the Jews.
Hardly. Are Israel and American Jewry really so desperate that we must cozy up to people whose messianic dreams entail having us all killed or converted to Christianity? Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, and his ilk believe that Israel dare not cede any territory in the quest for peace, claiming that the Bible promised all of the holy land to the Jews. In other words, Christian Zionists look at the trade-offs that Israel must make to achieve peace -- and hope to thwart them. Then again, peace is not what these folks have in mind; they hope that Israel will seek to permanently expand its borders, thereby goading the Arabs into a war that will become the catalyst for Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. Do your ambitions for Israel extend beyond turning it into the fuel for the fire of the "End of Days"? Then Hagee and company are not -- repeat, not -- your friends.
4. Talking peace with your enemies demonstrates weakness.
You don't need an advanced degree in international relations to recognize that pursuing peace only with people you like is pointless. Most Israelis know this; a recent poll in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that two-thirds of Israelis favor cease-fire negotiations between their government and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, exactly because Hamas is such a bitter foe. But in Washington, we self-righteously refuse to engage -- even indirectly -- with Hamas, Iran or Syria.
Hamas won the most recent Palestinian national elections in a landslide. Do we seriously think that it can be erased from the political landscape simply by assassinations and sanctions? Precisely because Hamas and Iran represent the most worrisome strategic challenges to Israel, responsible friends of Israel who'd like to see it live in security for its next 60 years should be engaging with them to search for alternatives to war.
5. George W. Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had.
Not even close. The president has acted as Israel's exclusive corner man when he should have been refereeing the fight. That choice weakened Israel's long-term security.
Israel needs U.S. help to maintain its military edge over its foes, but it also needs the United States to contain Arab-Israeli crises and broker peace. Israel's existing peace pacts owe much to Washington's ability to bridge the mistrust among parties in the Middle East. So when the United States abandons the role of effective broker and acts only as Israel's amen choir, as it has throughout Bush's tenure, the United States dims Israel's prospects of winning security through diplomacy. The best gift that Israel's friends here could give this gallant, embattled democracy on its milestone birthday would be returning the United States to its leading role in active diplomacy to end the conflicts in the Middle East -- and help a secure, thriving Israel find a permanent, accepted home among the community of nations.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is executive director of J Street, a lobby and political action committee that promotes peace and security in the Middle East.