This article first appeared in the Dec. 14, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen worries about “the widening gap between American Jews and the policies of the Netanyahu government” (“American Jews vs. the Israeli government,” December 6). But the gap seems to be between his perception and reality.
Cohen laments that “for moderate or liberal Jews—in other words, for the 76 percent who did not vote for Donald Trump—Israel has become like a relative who always has to be explained.” He then substitutes clichés for explanation.
The columnist claims “the overriding issue is the future of the West Bank—whether, along with the Gaza Strip, it will comprise a future Palestinian state or whether Israel will simply swallow it.” He never mentions Palestinian rejection of U.S.-Israeli and Israeli-only offers of a West Bank and Gaza Strip country in exchange for peace with Israel as a Jewish state in 2000, 2001 and 2008, or spurning of U.S. “frameworks” for talks toward such an outcome in 2014 and 2016.
Cohen obsesses over “the so-called settler movement, which wants more and more West Bank settlements, eventually foreclosing any chance” of a West Bank/Gaza Strip state. He avoids Palestinian rejectionism that suggests leaders focus more on defeating Israel than building “Palestine.”
Cohen cites Ehud Barak, former Israeli defense and prime minister and vehement critic of current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter fears a new Palestinian Arab state would become a terrorist enclave. Barak and other former Israeli generals and intelligence officials who agree with him “would not trifle with Israel’s security” and could “handle the situation,” Cohen prophesizes.
He fails to note that under Barak, Israel withdrew completely from southern Lebanon in 2000. This move ended a long, low-intensity conflict but also boosted the Iranian-backed “Party of God’s” influence and contributed to the 2006 Lebanon war. Hezbollah now possesses more than 100,000 short- and medium-range missiles that can strike almost any part of Israel.
Likewise, Cohen is silent over Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip under another former general-turned-prime minister, Ariel Sharon. That maneuver too was intended to end a low-intensity policing/military presence, secure “the moral high ground” Cohen—via Barak—believes Israel is losing among liberal American Jews, and perhaps spur peace talks. Instead, it allowed Hamas to claim, as Hezbollah had done in Lebanon, a “resistance” victory, win Palestinian elections in 2006, and turn Gaza into a terrorist base.
Handling that situation required Israeli incursions in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014. These offensives sacrificed a moral high ground that will remain out of reach for the Jewish state so long as the “progressive” world-view imagines Palestinian Arabs as a colonialized “other” rather than—to the extent they adhere to Sunni Islamist imperialism—a supremacist part of a Middle Eastern majority. It was not “Zionist racism” or “apartheid occupation” but rather this Israeli self-defense that sparked anti-Zionist and antisemitic eruptions across the globe.
It’s true many former Israeli security leaders agree with Barak. It’s also the case, which Cohen omits, that many others disagree strongly.
The columnist invokes Jeremy Ben-Ami, “head of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street and a frequent campus speaker,” to warn of a divide between what many American college students “believe are Jewish values and the policies of the Netanyahu government.” But J Street repeatedly sabotages its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” pose. Among many other things:
Ben-Ami lied about J Street’s major funding originally coming from left-wing financier George Soros, a shrill opponent of close U.S.-Israel ties;
The group implied a false equivalence between Palestinian aggression and Israeli defense against terrorism from the Gaza Strip; and
It repeatedly has claimed to champion a two-state solution while implying that Netanyahu has not supported such an outcome. Yet the prime minister has called for negotiating a peace aimed at two states for two peoples—if and when a Palestinian leadership also in favor can be found. Meanwhile, J Street’s political action committee has demonstrated a weakness for candidates with dubious pro-Israel credentials.
Cohen cites Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, who wrote “the world will judge the Jewish State by what it will do with the Arabs.” What Israel has done with its Arab minority is to ensure equal rights religiously, civically and legally. What Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have done with the rights of Arabs under their administrations is another matter. It reflects oppression by Arab governments throughout the region, not that the columnist notices.
If Cohen is explaining Israel’s problems with liberal American Jews, those Jews need a second opinion. It should be more factual, less wishful.