This is an interesting moment in relations between the United States and Israel. Call it a poisonous lull. The vitriol around the Iran nuclear deal has subsided. But something is rotten in the special bond.
The American ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, was recently dismissed as a “little Jew boy” by a former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for saying that “two standards” seem to apply in the way the law is applied to Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and that “too much Israeli vigilantism in the West Bank goes on unchecked.”
Shapiro was stating the obvious. Israeli settlers are citizens entitled to the full protection of civil law. The 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank are not. Their decades-old limbo places them in a permanent state of vulnerability subject to Israeli military law. Israel, in turn, exercises corrosive dominion; hence the vigilantism.
What was interesting was that Shapiro chose to speak out — a reflection of the acute frustration of the Obama administration with Israeli policies that cement what Secretary of State John Kerry has called a “one-state reality.” That reality is one in which Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state. The situation was well-described in a Human Rights Watch report published this month: “On the one hand, Israel provides settlers, and in many cases settlement businesses, with land, water infrastructure, resources, and financial incentives to encourage the growth of settlements. On the other hand, Israel confiscates Palestinian land, forcibly displaces Palestinians, restricts their freedom of movement, precludes them from building in all but 1 percent of the area of the West Bank under Israeli administrative control, and strictly limits their access to water and electricity.”
It’s not only within the administration that frustration is running high. The American Jewish community has grown more divided. Increasingly, younger Jews are distancing themselves from Israeli policies seen as unjust, unlawful, immoral or self-defeating. On college campuses where movements like Black Lives Matter have focused minds on issues of oppression and injustice, it does not take much to draw a parallel with the Palestinian cause, however lacking in nuance that analogy may be.
A right-wing Israeli government, including illiberal ministers contemptuous of the Palestinian national movement, makes it harder to put the case for support of Israel. If Netanyahu is now an Israeli moderate, what does that say about the extent of Israeli Messianic nationalism?
Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week and a strong supporter of Israel, sent me an article he published recently whose first paragraph reads:
“Even as Israel endures daily ‘lone wolf’ attacks from young Palestinians prepared to die for the cause of spilling Jewish blood, American Jewish leaders confide that generating support for the Jewish state is becoming increasingly difficult these days — even within the Jewish community, and especially among younger people.”
“To be pro-Israel is being seen as more and more of a right-wing thing,” Amna Farooqi, the president of J Street U, the campus branch of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace Jewish lobbying group, told me. “It’s false. You can be pro-Israel and progressive, but American Jewish leaders must be transparent on the settlements. You can’t say you support two states if you don’t take a clear position, for example, against funding activities over the Green Line.”
Farooqi, a senior at the University of Maryland, is a Pakistani-American Muslim elected to lead J Street U last summer. Raised in an immigrant family critical of Israel, but also in a neighborhood — Maryland’s Montgomery County — that was heavily Jewish, she came gradually to a Zionist’s belief in Israel’s right to exist combined with the conviction that “you cannot support Israel without grappling with the occupation. Keeping quiet will not help.”
When she started college, she initially thought of getting involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, but found there was little interest in engaging people with different views. “My talking to people who already believed what I believed was not useful,” she told me. “I wanted to go to Hillel and talk to people who did not believe there was an occupation. Two-state advocacy was easier with J Street. There’s no point sitting in an echo chamber.”
Farooqi’s message, through her own many-layered identity in a time of growing polarization, is important. The current situation is unsustainable. As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, remarked this month, “It is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.”
Palestinian leaders also have a responsibility to curb that hate — to cease incitement, hold elections, overcome divisions and abandon their sterile retreat into victimhood. But nothing can excuse Israel’s relentless pursuit of the very occupation that undermines it.
Close American tax loopholes that benefit settlers. Label West-Bank products so that consumers can make informed decisions. Pressure businesses, as Human Rights Watch puts it, to “comply with their own human rights responsibilities by ceasing settlement-related activities.”
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.