If Israel did listen to friends..?

The Jewish state is receiving a great deal of critical advice from the diaspora, most of it missing the fundamental point


How seriously should we take the current groundswell of diaspora Jews declaring their friendship for Israel, and then begging it to change course before disaster strikes?

It is certainly a popular message. J Street, the doveish lobby in America, led the pack in 2008; then there was J Call, its European imitator. Last month we had writer Peter Beinart fretting that young American Jews were becoming alienated from the Jewish state because of its "illiberal" policies.

Here in the UK, UJIA chairman Mick Davis has told Israel to come up with a strategy to solve the conflict, while in the JC Jonathan Freedland urged Israel to "listen to its friends".

I am not convinced this outpouring of concern shows the diaspora is souring on Israel. Too many of these voices have been saying the same things for years. But they have recently found a new confidence. It stems from a broad sense, across the political spectrum, that Israel is losing the West.

There is no magic bullet to make Israel’s problems go away

Over the past few months, Israel has been permanently on the diplomatic back foot, scrambling to defend itself following the Dubai assassination, the building decisions in east Jerusalem and the flotilla affair. Its political and military leadership seems third-rate. Worst of all is the "tectonic rift" between Israel and the US - as the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, reportedly described the relationship. With Israel bereft of its great protector, its enemies smell blood.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Israel's friends - and they mostly are friends - would want to save Israel from itself. But the diaspora Jews who have spoken up so far are on the wrong track.

Not that they speak with one voice. There is a vast difference between the specifics that J Call, for example, advanced - including an end to settlement in Arab east Jerusalem - and Mick Davis's more general call for Israel to develop a coherent strategy. But there is one recurring sentiment: that Israel must make what Ariel Sharon used to call "painful concessions for peace". The strong implication is that most of Israel's problems could be over if only it showed the political will to enforce a two-state solution.

I wish it were so. Sadly, history has shown again and again that Israel cannot reach a settlement, even though the will has been there (polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis would make great sacrifices, including uprooting settlers, for genuine peace). The fact is, though, that it does not have a partner in the Palestinians.

Yasir Arafat's decision to walk away from Ehud Barak's land-for-peace offer in Camp David in 2000 is legendary. And we tend to forget that, just two years ago, there was another serious Israeli offer on the table, reportedly even more generous in scope, from PM Ehud Olmert. PA President Mahmoud Abbas did not even bother responding.

This year, Abbas refused to even begin talks unless Israel made unprecedented promises over settlements, promises which should rightfully be negotiated in a final settlement, not a pre-condition. Do they even want a state - a negotiated one, that is? For a people supposedly desperate for independence, the Palestinians seem remarkably blasé about bringing it about.

And so Israel's situation is actually much more dire than the centre-left imagines. There is no magic bullet, no major move that Israel can make that will make its problems go away.

There is, of course, much it could do to improve its hand - change its foreign minister; stop building in east Jerusalem; renew the settlement building freeze. But these are tactics, not strategy. The biggest decision of all, to end the conflict forever, is currently out of its hands. Barring a major game-changer, such as a war or a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will drag on for many years.

Inevitably, this means the rift with the West, including Obama's America, will get worse; many more diaspora Jews may become disillusioned with the Jewish state.

Get used to it. It is not going away.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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