Does Israel have a responsibili-ty deficit?

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post


There is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has converted portions of the Israeli analytical class, and its co-religionists abroad, to the belief that the country is destined for failure. This belief system ascribes to itself the role of the canary in the Zionist mine and, since it is permanently critical, admits no responsibility for the failure it believes is coming.

Last week commentator Rogel Alpher penned an op-ed claiming that “The time has come to acknowledge reality: there will be no peace.” That is probably a correct analysis. But his conclusion places the onus on Israel. “It will be too late to save the two-state idea,” he writes, and “when the reckoning arrives” it is Israel that will have brought it on. “Among the Jews in the Knesset the Right has a big majority and this will only increase.” Many columnists and commentators feel the same way. Mark Levine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, asks, “who will save Israel from itself?” His prognosis is dire: “Israelis are clearly incapable. Their addiction as a society to the illusion of violence-as-power has reached the level of collective mental illness.” However, the place you find the most hand-wringing Jeremiahs of today (the prophet who warned the people to change their ways before it was too late) is among the Israeli Left. The mantra is generally quite consistent: Israel must make peace and remove itself, as much as possible, from the West Bank, lest it become non-democratic, isolated by the international community, and a pariah state.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 10.32.19 PMThis was on display in The New York Times op-ed co-authored by University of Haifa lecturer Israel Waismel-Manor. With Stanford Iranian-studies expert Abbas Milani, he argued that Iran and Israel were set to change places. We can assume Prof. Milani wrote the part about Iran’s liberalizing. What is interesting is Waismel-Manor’s model of Israel’s future. He claims that as the West becomes less religious it will be unable to identify with an Israel that is more religious: “A new generation of American Jews sees a fundamental tension between their own liberal values and many Israeli policies.” Waismel-Manor’s thesis is directed at demographics. “Since the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are also against any agreement with the Palestinians, with each passing day, the chances of reaching a peace deal diminish.” Time is not on Israel’s side because of Orthodox Jewish birthrates, so the narrative goes.

Graph showing religious members of Knesset in 2014 (IDI)

Graph showing religious members of Knesset in 2014 (IDI)

Similarly New Republic senior editor John Judis claims that “Israel’s Labor Party and smaller parties on the Left have wanted to return the occupied lands as part of a peace agreement … but … Labor Zionism itself has become marginalized.” These authors and many fellow travelers paint a linear view of Israeli history. For them there is Labor Zionism that can do no wrong and which had all the right ideas, and there is all the rest of Israel that threatens what Labor leader Ehud Barak called “the villa in the jungle.” What is fascinating about this approach is the degree to which it requires willful blindness to historic fact.

“Responsibility lies at the

heart of it all.”

WHEN ISRAEL conquered the “territories” in 1967 it had a government run by the Labor party. It was primarily apparatchiks of the Left that situated the first settlements in the Jordan Valley and Golan. As Gershom Gorenberg showed in Accidental Empire, the decision to build Jewish communities in the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and Sinai was a direct result of Israel’s Labor government-led post-1967 policies. Labor leader Yigal Allon conceived of building the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza. Golda Meir confidant Yisrael Galilee and military hero Moshe Dayan supported the construction of Yamit in Sinai. A 1984 article in The Christian Science Monitor reminds us that much of the construction of Jewish communities in the West Bank in the 1980s had the approval of Shimon Peres and Labor. The devil was in the details: “Likud and the Orthodox parties were resisting moves for a compromise settlement-policy platform allowing settlement only in West Bank areas agreed on by all factions in a new, Peres-led coalition.”

Yitzhak Sadeh (center), Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan (right)

Yitzhak Sadeh (center), Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan (right)

Lest anyone pretend that in those days no one knew what was being constructed, the AP reported on July 26, 1977, that “West Bank settlement brings US protest.” US secretary of state Cyrus Vance called it an “obstacle to peace.” What Judis and Waismel-Manor do is project backward their own prognosis for Israel. They think Jewish communities in the West Bank, and the former communities in Gaza and Sinai, were obstacles to peace, but they then shift blame from those they see as their ideological family, onto those they want to blame for Israel’s problems. Manor invents a narrative of “the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are against any agreement with the Palestinians” and therefore concludes the demographics of haredim are an impediment to progress in peace talks. Let’s remind ourselves that ultra-Orthodox Jews make up only 10 percent of Israel’s population. They have never been anything but a junior partner in governing coalitions, or were kept out altogether, and there are few haredim even living in the West Bank.

How is it that Labor Zionist Israel didn’t reach a peace deal from 1967 to 1977 when it was in power, or in 1984 to 1986, or 1995 to 1996, or 1991 to 2001? Israel has run the West Bank, the “disputed territories” as Danny Ayalon calls them, for almost 50 years, longer than the Jordanians or British. It isn’t the “Orthodox” and “demographics” that are the problem, it is the inability of the Zionist Left to take responsibility for its actions. It is the inability of the secular Zionist Right to provide vision for what it wants to do with the West Bank.

Responsibility lies at the heart of it all.

There is an irresponsible strain in Israel that always assigns blame to “them” even when it assigns blame to “us.” Thus, Israel is always entirely at fault for the collapse of various smoke-and-mirrors peace processes – but only part of Israel. A more holistic approach would be to see the need for a future policy in the West Bank as something everyone is responsible for.

Preaching and self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t helping anyone.

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