WASHINGTON – Advocates of strong U.S.-Israel relations have aimed for decades to keep Israel from being a divisive issue in American politics. Yet Israel is one of very few foreign policy issues already rating attention in the 2012 presidential election.
Republican candidates recently staked their claim to the “pro-Israel” mantle in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition Forum. President Barack Obama made his case on Dec. 16 to 6,000 Reform Jews gathered in Washington.
Studiously avoiding talk of peace, two states or America’s interest in the diplomatic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Republican candidates express unqualified support for Israeli government policy and unprecedented backing for Israeli settlement beyond the pre-1967 Green Line.
Pushed by a vibrant echo chamber of pundits and activists, they are seeking to claim the term “pro-Israel” as the exclusive property of the political right. In doing so, they are breaking new ground. Their agenda is not to ensure bipartisan support for aid to Israel or nurturing U.S.-Israeli ties based on shared interests and values.
Rather, they seek political advantage in labeling as “anti-Israel” those who disagree with their views, particularly those who promote a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East — including Obama.
Under this view, the only way to be truly “pro-Israel” is to sign on to the policy agenda of an Israeli government led by a right-of-center prime minister and an even further right coalition.
Unfortunately, there is not enough debate over what it means to be “pro-Israel” and little frank discussion of the fundamental, even existential, choice facing Israel and the United States at a strategic fork in the road.
Down one path, Israel maintains the status quo. Settlements beyond the Green Line continue to expand, and doubts regarding the existence of a true partner for peace are used to justify continued procrastination in taking meaningful steps toward a two-state solution.
All too quickly on this path it will become clear that there no longer is a Green Line. Rather, there will be one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean left to grapple with how to remain a democratic, Jewish nation when a majority of the people living there are not Jewish.
The other choice for Israel is to proactively take bold, even risky, steps to establish a state of Palestine based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps.
Many of Israel’s closest friends — including strong advocates of the U.S.-Israel relationship from both parties — understand that it must choose this latter path because its long-term survival and security are at risk without the creation of a Palestinian state.
The United States desperately needs to have a serious debate over which path best promotes its interests and those of Israel.
U.S. politicians also need to choose. Will they opt to seem pro-Israel to a small number of the loudest voices on the far right, or will they choose to actually be pro-Israel by advocating bold leadership and giving Israel the support it needs to take necessary risks?
Pro-Israel hawks too often duck the merits of the question by attacking critics of Israel’s present policies as “anti-Israel” or introducing the idea that anti-Semitism motivates those who point out that Israel’s own actions affect international attitudes toward it and the conflict.
This approach neither builds support for Israel over time nor enhances its long-term odds of survival.
To be pro-Israel in the 21st century is to recognize that both Jews and Palestinians have a right to a national homeland and that the route to peace and security is through an agreement to live in two states of their own.
Not so long ago, this vision sported bipartisan consensus. Every president since 1967 has opposed settlements and supported a democratic Israel.
The trajectory of U.S. policy since the late 1980s has been clear. President George H.W. Bush launched the Madrid “land for peace” talks. President Bill Clinton set out more explicit parameters for territorial division. President George W. Bush was proud to be the first president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state.
Yet the current GOP field seems determined to reverse this trend, turning against the very policies necessary to save a democratic and Jewish Israel.
Obama and those who anxiously urge — as friends and allies — that Israel choose the two-state path need to make the case, with vigor, that theirs is the better definition of “pro-Israel.”
Those who oppose this path are the ones breaking the long-term bipartisan consensus in this country. Among Jewish Americans, their views are in the minority. It should be on them to make a reasoned argument why theirs is a better way to be pro-Israel rather than resorting to labeling those who disagree with them as “anti-Israel.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the author of “A New Voice for Israel.”
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