Israeli Policies Face Jewish Critics

The HKS Citizen (Harvard Kennedy School)
October 13, 2010
By Sanjeev Bery

Acre by acre, successive Israeli governments have used settlement construction to colonize what is left of Palestinian land.  Meanwhile, a growing chorus of Jewish critics is forcing Israel to choose between its aggressive policies and the path of peace.

After a moratorium of ten months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently resumed settlement construction in the Palestinian West Bank.  On October 6th, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli bulldozers had been working “furiously” on the construction of 350 new Jewish-only housing units in the Palestinian region.

It is entirely possible that by the time this piece reaches print, the Netanyahu government may halt its settlement construction once again.  Palestinians have signaled that they would come back to the bargaining table if so.  The U.S. government — Israel’s biggest donor — has offered more incentives if Israel were to comply.

But after decades, the trend remains the same.  As Israel continues building settlements, the debate over a two-state solution becomes less and less relevant.  Over the years, the forced replacement of Palestinian land with Jewish-only neighborhoods has made a viable Palestinian state increasingly difficult to imagine.

Along the way, American taxpayers have been forced to foot the bill for Israeli intransigence.  The U.S. Congress has given billions of dollars to Israel, even as elected U.S. officials continue to posture as neutral arbiters in a conflict that is inextricably linked to U.S. financing.

For too long, the biggest U.S. media outlets have failed to ask why American taxpayers must be forced to financially underwrite Israel’s anti-peace actions.  But those same media voices are finally beginning to explore the notion that the Israeli government may not be truly interested in a viable two-state solution.  Just last month, three major news outlets in the U.S. explicitly or implicitly grappled with this very question.

On September 13th, Time magazine published the cover story “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.”   Ten days earlier, the Washington Post published an opinion piece in which a UC Hastings law professor called for a one-state solution based on “equal rights rather than ethnic privilege.”

On September 28th, New York Times blogger Robert Wright argued that Palestinians should give up on the current peace process and just campaign for the right to vote in Israeli elections.  As Wright put it, “Before long Israel would be pondering two-state deals more generous than anything that’s been seriously discussed to date.”

When Time, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all exhibit similar levels of skepticism towards Israeli policy, something is changing.  The Netanyahu Administration may still receive blank check support from U.S. politicians, but U.S. media outlets, and increasingly the American public, are less and less likely to go along for the ride.  Perhaps that’s why Harvard has been visited by three different Israeli politicians in the past month.  In politics, the war of perceptions comes first.  As Israeli bulldozers continue their work, Israeli officials are doing their best to contain the bad publicity in the U.S.

The actions of the Netanyahu government have forced Israeli officials to engage in elaborate gymnastics of justification.  Consider the recent comments of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who offered a twisted defense of renewed settlement construction for The New York Times:

“It is a read-my-lips moment,” Mr. Oren told the Times.  “This establishes credibility, not just for the Israelis but for the Palestinians. Establishing that the man [Netanyahu] is true to his word is going to be a very important asset going forward.”

Fortunately, such spin is being directly challenged by conscientious Jews worldwide.  In the U.S., for example, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” organization J Street has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli settlement construction and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.

Some are willing to go even further, putting their values and faith above all else.  Jewish organizations from the U.K., Germany, and the U.S. recently sent a ship full of Jewish activists to Gaza, home of 1.5 million Palestinians.  The ship’s cargo included toys, textbooks, and prosthetic limbs, but the Israeli Navy blocked it from reaching its destination.

One of the passengers on board was 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Reuven Moskovitz, whose participation demonstrates the unifying power of the human spirit.  His involvement in the Jewish boat to Gaza served as a reminder to many that the historic persecution of the Jewish people need not feed the current tragedy of the Palestinian condition.

In the words of Mr. Moskovitz, “We are two peoples, but we have one future.”

Sanjeev Bery is the Executive Director of Freedom Forward (http://freedomforward.org).  He is a midcareer MPA candidate at HKS.

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