The issue that made me act out of character

'It may be that Israel’s friends abroad can see things that some people living there cannot.'

June 15, 2020 18:36

Last week, I did something I almost never do. I signed one of those round-robin letters. I much prefer expressing my ideas in my own words — and in ways I can control.

On top of that, it was on a subject where I am usually pretty reticent. It was a letter criticising the policy of the government of Israel.

Don’t get me wrong. Over the years, there have been plenty of policies I have been critical about. But I generally take the view that I’m not an expert, I don’t live in Israel and I’m not Israeli.

I am a very outspoken defender of the existence of the state of Israel and its safety. I believe my family’s experience gives me both a duty to speak out and an opportunity to be heard. I also think that the existence and defence of Israel is in the interests of this country. And of a just and liberal world order.

So I’m quite willing to join the fray when the argument over Israel is met. But I’m much more nervous about offering an opinion of the policy of its government. It’s hard to get the balance right. One can’t stay silent about human rights abuses, for instance.

But Israel has plenty of critics, internal and external, and so in the limited comments I make on the subject I tend to concentrate on explaining the basic case for the state and its defence.

Why have I departed from that policy this time? Because I fear Israel is making a great strategic and moral error and I feel I would not be its good friend if I stayed silent. It is true that distance from a country may mean you miss things obvious to people who live there. But it is also true that distance can give perspective. It may be that Israel’s friends abroad can see things that some people living there cannot.

So here it is. Annexation would be a disastrous policy. I believe it would be deeply wrong but I want to concentrate in this article on something else. I think it would be a political mistake.

There are two parts to the error. First, there is this. However distant the prospect might seem, a two-state solution remains the only basis for a lasting peace in the Middle East, and peace is the only lasting basis for Israel’s security.

Sadly, the Palestinians have turned their face against such a solution, rejecting repeated offers and turning to violence instead. I also think the world community has not been tough enough with them about this and has allowed them to believe that they don’t really need to negotiate.

However, there remains no real alternative to pressing and persuading them to change this stance.

Anything that makes a two-state solution more difficult, as annexation clearly does, is a strategic error.

The allied error is to rely too much on Donald Trump. He is not a trustworthy ally. If someone flatters him, he announces that they are brilliant. If they criticise him he might threaten war.

You never know where you are with him from one minute to the next. One minute you are dealing with an official in his administration, the next they have been fired or have quit.

One minute he has one policy, the next he has picked up some other notion from the TV. This is not a steady partner who is going to help you get a deal.

To take a big decision which is hard to reverse on the basis of a yes or no from Donald Trump is deeply imprudent.

The other problem with President Trump is even more obvious. He isn’t going to be President for ever. Indeed his presidency could be over in months. But even if he wins, the strategic error would remain.

To attach United States support for Israel to the person and politics of Donald Trump is to risk alienating the entire left and centre of American politics. It is to risk congressional support and the support of future presidents. It is to risk anti-Israeli positions becoming part of the identity of the American left.

It’s not too late to think again. That’s why I signed the letter.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

June 15, 2020 18:36

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