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Netanyahu’s New Clothes

Ron Skolnik
July 19, 2015

The Emperor is Naked. Will American Jews Say So?

by Ron Skolnik

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point as he addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW BUSINESS ENERGY POLITICS HEADSHOT) - RTR2MU7D

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN’S 19th-century classic, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” tells of a pair of swindlers who claim to be able to weave beautiful garments that are invisible to anyone who is exceptionally stupid or unfit for their position. The emperor pays these ‘weavers’ handsomely to create a royal suit made of the enchanted material. Since neither His Majesty nor anyone in his retinue is willing to be outed as incompetent or a fool, none admits to not seeing the new clothes, and the emperor proceeds to parade in the buff until a small child in the public square literally speaks truth to power and exposes the swindle.

The American Jewish community is now approaching its own “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment. With the reelection of an Israeli prime minister who has disavowed a two-state resolution of his country’s conflict with the Palestinian people, supporters of Israel in the U.S. will need to choose between maintaining a communitarian charade regarding Israeli policy or publicly confessing to what their senses tell them. Particularly significant will be the choice made by a broad swath of American Jewish organizations that might loosely be grouped under the heading of “conflicted pro-Israel moderates.” Diverse in size, mission, and orientation, these organizations have, over the last half-dozen years, shared two key positions: categorical support for a two-state solution, and official treatment of Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud-led government as a willing partner in the effort to negotiate such an outcome.

On the left edge of the pro-Israel spectrum, some organizations have never hidden their distrust of Netanyahu. In 2009, for example, Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel) dismissed his much-ballyhooed “Bar-Ilan Speech,” in which he indicated for the first time his willingness to stomach the idea of Palestinian statehood, as a “wasted opportunity” that “evaded the key issues [and] threw up new obstacles.” An overtly skeptical Americans for Peace Now bemoaned the prime minister’s preference for “preconditions and negotiations non-starters,” and cited his failure to “remind... Israelis that peace requires painful concessions.”

As Netanyahu’s credibility as a potential peacemaker continues to shrivel, will the “conflicted moderate” groups similarly prioritize their peace agenda over their familial protectiveness towards Israel and its reputation? Or will they resolve their dilemma by continuing to insist, like the Emperor’s courtiers and subjects, that Israeli government support for the two-state solution is plain for all to see?

NETANYAHU FIRST WRAPPED HIMSELF in the mantle of peace six years ago, after starting his second term as prime minister. A lifelong opponent of a Palestinian state, he had even boasted in 2001 that during his first term at Israel’s helm (1996-99), “I put a halt to the Oslo Accords.” Under pressure from the Obama administration, however (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had endorsed the two-state solution, and President Obama had stated in Cairo that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”), Netanyahu delivered that Bar-Ilan speech in June 2009. Although he ruled out all compromise on Jerusalem and imposed a variety of questionable conditions on both the peace process and an eventual Palestinian state, the pro-Israel mainstream lauded the address as proof of his newfound moderation. Miserly in content and frosty in style, the speech made it possible for them to plug the prime minister into a narrative of uninterrupted Israeli commitment to peace since 1992, when the obdurate Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had been replaced by the fabled (and martyred) Yitzhak Rabin.

Netanyahu never lived up to the hype. He populated successive cabinets with pro-occupation and pro-annexation politicians, neglected to make a two-state solution official government or even Likud policy, and continued a strategy of West Bank settlement expansion and entrenchment. Until last year, however, one could still somehow imagine Netanyahu responding to an American-led peace initiative to drive a hard bargain with the Palestinian Authority, which was clearly eager to gain some semblance of an independent state, if only to stave off the influence of Hamas.

Today, Netanyahu stands naked. His austere interpretation of a “two-state solution,” described last summer to anyone willing to listen, bore no resemblance to the plan envisaged by the whole of the international community — and then, during the tight election campaign, he told his citizens in explicit terms that no Palestinian state would be established as long as he occupied the prime minister’s chair. While he hurriedly walked back these remarks on American television immediately after the election, the distinction he offered — that he was for two states in theory but against it in practice — was tortured. President Obama, for one, wasn’t buying it: “We cannot simply pretend that [the pre-election] comments were never made,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a J Street gathering [PDF] in March.

MCDONOUGH’S CHOICE of venue for his statement made sense. Of all the pro-Israel organizations that meet the definition of “conflicted moderate,” J Street has generally been the most willing to take Netanyahu and his government to task.

Eager since its founding to be seen as centrist rather than leftist, and committed to Obama’s policy of U.S.-mediated peace talks, J Street had officially kept an open mind about Netanyahu’s overall strategy. It accepted his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech at face value and welcomed it as “an important step forward.” Four years later, J Street again chose to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt when, with not a hint of skepticism, it hailed his and Palestinian President Abbas’ agreement to resume talks under American auspices as a “diplomatic breakthrough.” J Street also has opposed efforts to bring the Israel-Palestine question before the UN, arguing that such initiatives undermined the chances of bilateral talks succeeding.

At its March 2015 national conference, however, J Street leaders made clear that Netanyahu had lost their confidence. The prime minister “is utterly... opposed to Palestinian statehood,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami announced unequivocally on opening night. The negotiating process had therefore reached a “dead end,” according to the organization’s board chair, Morton Halperin. J Street instead recommended that the Obama Administration now publish an American outline for a final-status deal and ask the UN Security Council to authorize it.

No other “conflicted moderate” organization has so far shown the same willingness to brand Netanyahu as anti-peace or to welcome outside pressure. The reconstituted Israel Policy Forum (IPF), for example, with its historical ties to Israel’s Labor Party, has, like J Street, reached the conclusion that “current political conditions make an agreed two-state solution implausible,” but the organization has refrained from stripping Netanyahu of his two-state credentials and instead performs a delicate semantic balancing act, reprimanding and assigning responsibility to the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president in equal measure. And despite its pessimistic prognosis for the peace process, IPF remains wedded to the traditional model of "direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with active American support." Although the U.S. might propose “terms of reference" for talks, IPF says, these should only be non-binding in nature — and a United Nations route is out of bounds, since the world body’s “one-sided… resolutions" would “push [a peace accord] farther away."

The small, veteran Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) offers another way of walking between the raindrops. Reaffirming its commitment to the two-state solution, the organization has “note[d] with concern” the formation of Netanyahu’s reactionary new coalition government. But JLC mindfully avoids directing its fire at Netanyahu personally, or even at Likud, in which pro-annexation figures have become the dominant force. Instead, JLC singles out as villain a junior member of the coalition, the modern Orthodox Jewish Home party. Though JLC certainly lavishes no praise on Netanyahu, it elects not to label him a peace deal opponent and leaves open the “hope” that he might yet fulfill the promise he displayed at Bar-Ilan.

Other “conflicted moderates” cannot even permit themselves that pinch of salt. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the coordinating public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, hastily and appreciatively welcomed Netanyahu’s post-election “clarification,” praising his “positive step towards peace.” The leaders of Reform Judaism, who had been “left to wonder what type of future [Netanyahu] envisions” following his “revocation” of support for two states, softened their tone in early May, when Netanyahu finally formed his rightwing government, by congratulating him and noticeably omitting any mention, let alone criticism, of his stance against a Palestinian state. A few days later, after the Vatican reaffirmed its recognition of the State of Palestine, the Reform Jewish movement response (“not the right way” to “help advance peace in the region”) read much like that of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The Conservative movement, too, after Israel’s elections but before Netanyahu had a chance to backtrack, expressed pique towards Netanyahu, but focused its displeasure not on the two-state issue but on the election-day Facebook video in which Netanyahu urged his supporters to vote because “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” Conservative leaders sharply “denounce[d] the Prime Minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement.” A few days later, however, movement leaders issued a press release to “welcome and applaud” Netanyahu’s post-election apology to Israel’s Arab citizens. As for his remarks about a Palestinian state, Conservative leaders did not just opt to remain silent but actually reprimanded the Obama Administration for reacting negatively and critically, which had the potential, the Conservative statement complained, to weaken the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in the U.S., only the small Reconstructionist movement has been unforgiving in its rebuke: The movement’s leaders bluntly noted that the Netanyahu’s “commitment... to continually build and expand settlements in the West Bank... puts the lie” to his day-after “backtracking.” The others seem far more concerned with preserving their credibility as ‘pro-Israel’ advocates than with the content of their advocacy. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, put it most baldly in a recent op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz. “Netanyahu has spent six years doing his best to avoid the [two-state] topic [and is] hesitant to affirm the two-state principle,” Yoffie complained, but the rabbi still refused to take the hint. He begged Netanyahu to express “personal” support for the two-state vision, even while assembling, as Yoffie acknowledged, a coalition government and cabinet that would never support the idea. The bottom line, wrote Yoffie, is that American Jews need such material to “present Israel’s case in a positive light” — even if that case is at odds with Israel’s actual policy.

AMID THE GENUINE SECURITY CHALLENGES Israel faces, this abundance of caution exercised by “conflicted moderates” is not wildly irrational. The burden of proof they demand before throwing in the towel on Netanyahu is deliberately set high. They could have taken their cues, however, from Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni. No enemy of Israel, Livni once worked for the Mossad, was a member of Likud, is a former foreign minister, has vied to be prime minister, and served as chief negotiator with the Palestinians in Netanyahu’s previous government.

After Netanyahu’s meeting in May with the visiting European Union foreign policy chief, at which the prime minister reprised his post-election remarks, Livni was asked by an interviewer whether she believed Netanyahu when he said he was for a two-state future. She offered this response [original in Hebrew, author's translation]:

Israel’s problem is that Netanyahu... has built the government he wanted to build, and none of its members really wants to go there. He says a few words because he understands the world won’t accept [otherwise]... Which Bibi should I believe? The one who said before the elections there won’t be a Palestinian state? The one who says when someone comes to visit that there will be? Seriously?! ... At the end of the day, it’s about substance, not a few words or a few speeches.

Livni has joined a growing number of centrist, security-minded Israelis who have come to the conclusion that Netanyahu’s policies are badly damaging the national interest and who see no benefit in keeping up appearances any longer. They understand that while the conflict with the Palestinians has for decades exacted a tragic cost in blood, bereavement and the slow moral decay that caused Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to term his country a “sick society” late last year, Netanyahu’s policies are now exposing Israel to an ominous international isolation as well. As the grassroots boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) movement steadily picks up steam, the EU weighs a series of punitive measures, and the U.S. signals that it is becoming “a lot tougher” to defend Israel in the international arena, many are warning that the country now faces a dangerous “diplomatic tsunami” in the absence of a significant course correction.

In contrast to Israelis like Livni, most pro-Israel American Jewish moderates, although obviously frustrated by Netanyahu, are not yet ready to upset the applecart. But as the international community, weary of the occupation, begins to cry out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes, American Jews may soon be torn between their familial desire to stand in defense of Israel and their own sense of integrity and truth-telling.

Ron Skolnik, our contributing writer, is an American-Israeli political analyst, columnist, and translator. For many years he directed Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), prior to which he served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter @Ron_Skolnik.