Saturday, October 9, 2010

US Israel relationships: The public debate, correcting a favorable picture

First in a series of seven
parts: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7

The American – Israeli crisis over the Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem is long behind us, almost forgotten because of other crises and events that followed. Analysts and commentators believe that the differences remain, but the American administration decided to address them non-confrontationally. If so, that is quite a u-turn from what was a highly charged clash of honor and anxiety.

This clash was not just between the two governments. One such non-governmental exchange was the minor and indirect clash of words between senior American journalist and New-York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Israeli journalist and YNET contributor Avi Trengo. This was not a clash of equally matching titans. It is doubtful if Thomas Friedman even heard of Avi Trengo and his response. What is important here is not who each of these gentlemen is, but what they both represent. They are the two opposite ends of the narrowest divide of views between the majority of Israelis and the American left regarding the peace process. Avi Trengo is a representative of the largest and most underreported segment of Israeli society, the disillusioned peace activists, and peace voters. Only a handful of foreign reporters have reported on them, on their views and concerns. And the most important of those journalists is Thomas Friedman. One example of Friedman's attentiveness to this segment of the Israeli population followed his 2003 documentary for the Discovery Channel, “Straddling the fence,” about the construction of Israel’s effective security barrier. As he explained at the time to senior CNN anchorman Jonathan Mann: “But let me simply say one other thing. I'm sorry that that moral threat is there. I do believe it is a real danger to Israel, but I believe we cannot lose sight also of the fact, this fence is the fence that Hamas built. If there were no suicide bombings, there would be no fence.

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman

While Hamas is not the only terrorist organization to use suicide bombings against Israeli citizens, understanding, and acknowledging the fears Israelis have from this threat, many of them supporters of the peace process, is a meeting of minds. This was an important meeting of minds because it took place over the issue of Israel's security barrier, which was strongly criticized by most of the world at the time.

But over Ramat Shlomo there was a parting of minds, and not a pleasant one. When Thomas Friedman referred to a regular housing announcement that had become a routine for 43 years as “Driving drunk,” Trengo responded, “Take your money back,” suggesting Israel should stop receiving the annual 3 billion dollars in financial aid from the USA, since it is really only 690 millions dollars a year; were the rest goes back to buy American military products. His suggestion was a rather simplistic understanding of the economic relationships between the two countries, which involve more factors than those annual loans or grants. What it does represent is not only an emotional counter response but also the will to act on one’s own words. Which meant that it was a crisis in which there were Israelis willing to sever the bond between the two nations, a bond these loans have come to represent.

February 17th, 2002 is a day I will never forget: It was during the Intifada, with the worse still ahead of us. I participated in an intimate Peace Now demonstration as an active member. For more than 30 years, I shared Friedman’s view that a return to the 1967 borders is a magical solution. Yet during the rally, we were informed that a suicide bomber killed two children at a pizza parlor. The protestors observed a moment of silence, before the next speaker, a Palestinian “moderate,” took the stage. His speech focused solely on accusing Israel while going back to the Nakba and early days of Zionism. The terror attack at the pizza parlor in Karnei Shomron was not mentioned at all. I left the rally with a sense of disgust.

Avi Trengo

Thomas Friedman’s follow up “Hobby or necessity” tried to water down the dispute by explaining to his readers in both countries the other side’s positions and realities. This was an admirable and commendable undertaking, but one that he got wrong when it comes to Israel. In that article he argued that Israelis treat the need to reach peace as a hobby because they lost faith in the idea that Palestinians want peace. And because the Israeli economy is doing so well there is no need for peace. The first part is inaccurate, the second one, even more so.

To begin with, Israelis don’t consider the need to make peace with the Palestinians a hobby for a reason Thomas Friedman knows very well. Most Israeli families still send their sons and daughters to the army when they turn 18. Though the daily security situation has improved enormously due to the security barrier and other measures taken by Israel, it is not 100%. About once a year, the terrorists have a “success” in the form of a bombing, a shooting, or a stabbing. It is violence, which all Israelis, like all people, can do without.

Thomas Friedman builds a part of his article on a previous one written by Newsweek’s Dan Ephron and published on January 2nd, 2010, “Who Needs Peace, Love, And Understanding, Anyway?“ From which he quotes: “in short, Israelis are enjoying a peace dividend without a peace agreement.” But that statement is wrong. A peace dividend is made up of two parts: the removal of the uncertainty of war from a country’s future, and the release of resources previously needed for maintaining a large army and waging a war. Therefore, Israel does not have a peace dividend. Its economy is doing well despite of the lack of a peace dividend. Imagine a country that does well without oil fields. Nonetheless it would certainly like to have oil fields so it can enjoy the oil boom and improve its economic independence. In the same way Israel would like to have a peace dividend. Israeli hi-tech firms would love to see their best and brightest no longer called for duty in the army reserves, and no one wants to see tourist attractions in the line of fire.

This is the economic part of the reasoning behind the arguments for peace that helped create and motivate the Israeli peace camp in the 1990’s. (The other part was the moral arguments regarding the occupation and the consequences of ruling over another people for a long period of time). The only thing that changed is the realization that there is no peace partner. If taking the path to peace has brought the very violence and dangers the advocates of peace and territorial concessions promise to avoid, why take that path again?

People don’t want to die, that is the sole reason behind the Israeli reluctance to resume the peace process, no more no less. Or to paraphrase Dan Ephron’s title, "Who Needs Peace, Love, And Understanding, if it keeps getting you killed?" Putting the blame on the relatively good condition of the Israeli economy serves two diversionary purposes. For Americans like Thomas Friedman, Dan Senor, and Saul Singer, this apparent anomaly, where the Israeli economy is doing better than the American economy, is a way of poking at those in charge of their economy to do better. For what is left of the hard core ideological left in Israeli, is a form of scapegoating and escapism. By not addressing and criticizing the Palestinian violence, its scale and brutality and the incitement that fed it, they lost the support of their natural constituency. However, instead of taking responsibility, they put the blame on the business success of this constituency. Thus portraying falsely an Israel that cares more about making money than making peace, as if there is a contradiction between the two.

The problem is that the hard core ideological left in Israel, on its various factions, Zionists and post-Zionists, seems to be the main conduit, favored by American and international media for explanations of the Israeli society. But this part of the Israeli left has a discredited ideology, denial, and an inability to reach the Israeli public, as evident by their devastating defeat in the elections of 2009. Therefore, their own understanding of Israeli society and politics is very limited and skewed.

This skewed picture, of a hedonist Israel, was introduced to the world in two articles: The above-mentioned article by Dan Ephron, and a later one by Karl Vick of the “Time” magazine.  Both articles base themselves on several omissions. First, that the reason the Israeli economy is doing better is because of sound economic policy, and not because of some mysterious business skills or hidden wealth. The second omission is the fact that most Israelis are very cautious in their optimism. Acutely aware of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of their national economy, their confidence, no matter how high, always tries to avoid the trap of complacency. This is a recurring feature of all internal discussions inside Israel on this subject. But this discussion is absent from the Dan Ephron and Karl Vick articles. The third omission is the question that preoccupies many Israelis today. Is the current Palestinian leadership a partner for peace? As far as Ephron and Vick are concerned, this question shouldn’t be asked.

The fourth omission is a simple question that must be placed in front of Dan Ephron, Karl Vic, and others who share their intolerant and patronizing attitude. What do they expect a people who lost hope in the availability of peace to do? To sink into never ending depths of depression, or to invest and develop whatever part of their lives they can and make the best of it? Because this is what Israel has done. And this is what other nations would have done had they been in the same situation. And that is the purpose of this seven part series: to show that what Israel and Israelis are doing is not so unexplainable and inexcusable. In spite of the accusations its detractors make when they capitalize on the good intentions of Thomas Friedman, Dan Senor and others. Because when these slanders are made, ‘hedonistic Israel’, or ‘terror enabling Israel’, no one profits, especially not the peace process.

Dvar Dea


US Israel relationships a seven parts series:
The public debate, correcting a favorable picture
The public debate, Israel and the war on terror
The Palestinian component
The right wing component
The Israeli exclamation mark, Obama's triple inheritance
The Israeli exclamation mark, unbalancing outreach w go-between
The peace process' beggars' choice

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