A way to break the deadlock

The Big Tent for Israel conference, which takes place in Manchester at the end of the month, has been making news for all the wrong reasons.

As signalled by its name, it was intended to have a broad community-wide reach. Instead it threatened to become a focus of religious divisions after the Orthodox rabbi who instigated it let it be known that he would not invite non-Orthodox rabbis to speak. But another inter-denominational bust-up has been averted. As a compromise, an independent panel has been set up to select the speakers in order to guarantee the event's cross-communal credibility. No doubt potential funders put off by the row about rabbis will now be more willing to dip into their pockets.

The content of Big Tent is, at any rate, not controversial. It was planned in response to a call, made in a report by the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, to mobilise grassroots diaspora support against the delegitimisation of Israel. Until then, the institute was little known outside academia and the world of policy wonks. Its report has since been widely adopted as a road map for Israel advocacy.

Reut defines delegitimisation as the refusal to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Delegitimisers reject a two-state solution since that would simply entrench recognition of Israel; their ultimate design is for one state. They seek to make Israel a pariah nation like apartheid South Africa, isolated internationally through boycotts and sanctions. Reut believes the UK is a "leading hub" of delegitimisation with global influence.

They seek to make Israel a pariah nation like South Africa

For diaspora leaders, one obvious advantage of an anti-delegitimisation campaign is that most within the Zionist camp will agree with its aims; other differences over Israel can be set aside to fight the good fight. There are still a few dissenting voices; the veteran Israeli academic Shlomo Avineri, author of several books on Zionism, has argued that there are "no significant moves afoot anywhere on earth to delegitimise Israel", rather the debate is about "criticism of Israel's control of Palestinian territory and its settlement policy".

Reut highlights the distinction between delegitimisers and critics, acknowledging that "in most cases" criticism does not amount to delegitimisation. Its report also notes that, although hard-core delegitimisers reject a two-state solution, to reverse the tide of delegitimisation, Israel must "demonstrate a credible commitment to ending control of its Palestinian population".

A few weeks ago Reut released another report which so far has attracted less attention. Israel has opposed the Palestinian's unilateral bid for independence at theUN, while diaspora organisations like the Board of Deputies lobbied their governments not to support the move. But Reut says Israel should consider recognising Palestinian statehood and announce its willingness to enter into negotiations with the UN over the terms of statehood. Any agreement would depend on the principle of "two states for two peoples", leaving the Palestinians with the choice of formally recognising Israel as a state for the Jewish people or being seen to reject the offer of peace.

Reut believes that calls by Israel - and others - for the Palestinians to resume direct talks (outside the UN) are "hollow" because Mahmoud Abbas's government is in no position to do so. Instead, Reut contends that Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state would "weaken the assault on its legitimacy". Conversely, the lack of an Israeli diplomatic initiative could strengthen the hand of delegitimisers and also reduce support for Israel in diaspora communities where "Israel has for some time turned into a polarising and divisive issue".

So far, among Zionist organisations in the UK, only the alternative advocacy group Yachad has been ready to see the Palestinian UN bid as an "historic opportunity" to break the deadlock in the peace process. Could the Big Tent follow suit? It would be a turn-up for the books if it did.

Simon Rocker is Judaism editor of the JC

    Last updated: 11:16am, November 4 2011