Monday, November 9, 2009

Myth: American Jews disrespect Israeli democracy when they suggest Obama should press Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accept a US peace plan.

We often hear that American Jews may have a right to an opinion on the Israeli-Arab conflict, but no right to tell Israelis and Palestinians what they should do in matters of peace or war. If they go so far as to suggest that President Obama propose a peace plan and press the parties to accept it, or to negotiate within its parameters, they are being disrespectful of the wishes of the Israeli electorate and the government that represents them.

The facts:

1. This argument ignores that American Jews are American citizens too, and as full participants in American democratic process, we have a right and a duty to express our views to our elected officials over US policy towards the Middle East, including Israel. As American citizens, we are under no obligation to subordinate our judgments about US Middle East policy to those of Israel’s electorate, or its government. That would be tantamount to allowing Israel to dictate to us, and to our own government, what US policy should be. In fact, it disrespects American democracy to tell American Jews that they must urge American leaders to act as Israeli voters wish, not as American, including American Jewish voters, choose.

We “are American citizens who back American policies that we believe are in our own country’s interests, as well as the interests of Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the world….I think the Obama administration is helping America and Israel when it tries to stop actions that, if left unchecked, will preclude a two-state solution, including Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian violence and incitement,” notes Dan Fleshler.

It goes without saying that the President of the United States is under no obligation to subordinate his views on US Middle East policy to those of the Israeli government. He must consider the full range of US values and interests, among which our friendship and alliance with Israel is unquestionably a top priority. But the Israeli government’s views as to how the US should pursue our interests in the region, or our relationship with Israel, should not, by themselves, determine how the US should act. As others have noted, US policy towards the Middle East must be made in Washington, not in Jerusalem.

2. America’s alliance with Israel has a wide range of consequences for US national security. An Israeli decision to mount a preemptive strike against Iran will embroil the US in a protracted war with Iran, and expose hundreds of thousands of American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf to counter-attack. Our alliance with an Israel in conflict with the Palestinians and Arab nations breeds animosity towards the U.S. among Arabs and Muslims. Dan Fleshler observes: “As long as Israel and America are seen in much of the Muslim world as steadfast allies in a war between civilizations, what Israel does in the occupied territories is my problem, too. The Israel-Palestinian conflict fuels global instability and extremism and provides a valuable mobilizing tool for terrorist groups that would just as soon attack the New York City subway system as Sderot.”

Americans, and not only American Jews, are willing to bear the consequences of our alliance with Israel, for good or for ill. We must and will stand by our bond with the Jewish state, no matter the consequences. But the fact that our own security is impacted by Israeli actions means that we do and must have a weighty voice when it comes to what steps Israel should take in the region to promote peace and in matters of war.

3. As important as the US-Israel relationship is to us as American Jews and to the President, the US has its own set of global interests which aren’t necessarily identical to those of Israel, even if there is considerable overlap. When some Israelis or other American Jews tell us that all American Jews must subordinate their opinions to those of the Israeli voter – or to however Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s arcane electoral/coalition system translates the will of the Israeli electorate – they are playing on our identity as Jews, and demanding that we subordinate our American-ness to our Jewishness.

4. Even if we placed our Jewishness before our American identity, it does not follow that American Jews must encourage their elected officials to pursue an American policy that is made in Jerusalem by the Israeli electorate or its government. If our moral compass, our sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews, or our judgment as autonomous American Jews actively committed to Israel’s well-being, leads us to different conclusions than the Israeli government, we are obligated to urge our elected officials – and Jewish leaders who we feel represent us - to adopt our chosen policies.

5. An Israel – or an American Jewish leadership – that demands of American Jews obeisance to the policies of whichever Israeli government is in power, alienates a growing number of American Jews from active engagement with Israel. That translates into less, not more, support for Israel. If the only kind of pro-Israel support that is kosher is a slavish, unreflective following of the Israeli government’s tune, that amounts to a one-dimensional Jewishness that is at odds with the core Jewish tradition of argument, debate and reflection. A narrow concept of what it means to be pro-Israel is bad for Israel and bad for American Jews as Jews and as Americans.

6. If Israeli and Palestinian politics are too dysfunctional to enable their leaders to take the necessary steps to move the conflict towards resolution, leading to growing regional insecurity and renewed war and violence, it is incumbent on the U.S. to play a leadership role to help the parties move forward. This may entail proposing a US peace plan or framework for negotiations, and providing incentives and disincentives to both sides to reach an agreement within a specified time-frame. That's pro-American, pro-Israel, and decidedly the right, and responsible, thing for President Obama to do.

For more insight, read:

Dan Fleshler, "The Pro-Israel Camp Cares About America Too," Realistic Dove