Debating a lack of debate on Israel

Debating a lack of debate on Israel

It seems hardly a week passes now without someone writing an article complaining that there is no debate in America about Israel and that AIPAC and other Jewish establishment organizations don’t represent the majority of American Jews. What is particularly comical about these complaints is that the people whining that dissent is being stifled manage to keep getting their views aired in every media outlet.

Poor Jimmy Carter has been so successfully silenced that there must be a media outlet somewhere that has not yet had him appear to flack his book. And, of course, while hypocritically claiming to have written his screed for the purpose of stimulating debate, he refuses to engage in a debate with anyone because he knows anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about would eviscerate his specious arguments.

The notion that there is no debate about Middle East issues is pure rubbish. Every aspect of Israeli policy is vigorously debated within the Jewish community and outside it. What frustrates Carter, George Soros, and other critics is that most Jews, and most Americans, disagree with them. They like to claim that they are the true representatives of Jewish opinion and demand that America adopt policies that are contrary to the wishes of the democratic electorate in Israel.

Anne Roiphe, writing recently in the Jerusalem Report, is typical of the whiners who complain, for example, that AIPAC doesn’t represent Jewish opinion. First, she offers no evidence to support this other than the fact that she doesn’t agree with it. Second, she fails to understand that AIPAC represents Americans who believe in a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, not right-wing Jews. She claims a turning point came with the election of the Likud in 1977 when Israel adopted what she views as "uncompromising positions," ignoring the fact that that the so-called right-wing fanatic Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt, dismantled settlements in Sinai, and gave up the desert buffer. And it was his willingness to grant the Palestinians autonomy, which they rejected, that created the conditions for the later acceptance by most Israelis of Palestinian statehood.

It was a longstanding tradition, and good politics, to present a unified front and support the government of Israel. The first to violate this convention was not the right, it was Roiphe’s fellow travelers on the left who came to the United States in the 1980s and began to lobby against the Likud government’s policies. The right then followed suit when Labor gained power. Israelis have subsequently invented their own notion of American Jewish pluralism, namely, that American Jews should support the government if their party is in power and oppose it if their opponents are running the country.

It is understandably frustrating for people like Roiphe that AIPAC doesn’t agree with her. That doesn’t make AIPAC’s policies wrong or unrepresentative. Practically, how would you influence policy if every individual Jew was expressing their personal opinion? We all have free speech, and we can vote our conscience on election day, but the alternative to AIPAC is chaos. For every two Jews, there would be three opinions given to journalists, members of Congress, and decision-makers.

How could anyone sort out a policy from such a cacophony?

You know what the pro-Israel lobby would look like if Roiphe and Soros had their way? The Arab lobby. It is ineffective precisely because it cannot represent the interests of ‘1 states with competing interests.

The strength of the pro-Israel lobby is that it speaks mostly with one voice and its policy is shaped primarily by what the majority of the people in Israel have determined is in their interest through their electoral process. To do otherwise is to substitute American Jews’ wisdom for that of the people who live with the consequences of U.S. actions.

This approach has served Israel and U.S.-Israel relations well. The decision-making process is consistent, but can lead to dramatic shifts in how AIPAC lobbies. After Oslo, for example, suddenly the PLO was kosher and previously unthinkable territorial concessions were applauded. Disengagement was not popular with the right and yet it was embraced by AIPAC because it was government policy. I know Roiphe would not have liked the idea of a pro-settlement lobby trying to get the U.S. to stop the disengagement, but that is exactly what would happen in the absence of the current policy. Today, settlement opponents try to get the U.S. to force Israel to remove them, but they are unsuccessful because it is not consistent with Israeli or American views of how to best make progress toward peace.

Roiphe’s suggestion that AIPAC is "egging on the conflict" is rubbish.

Did AIPAC lobby Yasser Arafat to reject Ehud Barak’s offer of statehood? She says the right wing is spreading the word there’s no partner for peace.

Excuse me? What is the partner’s name? Is it the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh who says Israel has no right to exist? Or is it President Mahmoud Abbas who has failed to fulfill the repeated promises to stop terrorism and cannot even maintain order in the PA, let alone guarantee peace with Israel?

Like Jimmy Carter, Roiphe and other critics of U.S. Middle East policy will continue to write article after article about the lack of debate. In fact, they are getting their chance to present their side in the debate; what they can’t accept is that they’ve lost it because their opponents have a stronger case.

Mitchell Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library and author of the forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan book "Will Israel Survive?"