Updated: May 13, 2020
Israel has been conducting itself like a state struggling for survival ever since its establishment, and even more so in recent years, despite its indisputable standing as a regional power. While the key challenges it faces are clearly in the realm of diplomacy and soft power, Israeli politicians present them through a military prism even as the state’s own security officials clearly believe the solution to Israel’s fundamental challenges does not lie in the military arena. The politicians have accustomed the public to live in fear, using fear to amass political power rather than generating vision and hope.
An unbearable gap exists between professionals in the civil service – most of whom are prevented from expressing themselves in public, who understand that issues of peace and diplomacy should take center stage in public discourse and the state’s strategic order of preference – and politicians who regard such matters as trivial. The politicians stoke the sense of public fear, which then makes them hostage to public opinion, rather than dealing with the many opportunities on our doorstep.
The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) illustrates how we have turned a tactical threat that does not endanger Israel’s security or prosperity into an existential threat. Israel’s aggressive policies vis-à-vis the movement violate freedom of expression, which liberal audiences view as a key human right.
This, in turn, plays into the hands of those promoting BDS because it alienates many groups deterred by the government’s anti-liberal policies. The Foreign Ministry, more than any other government agency, is familiar with Israel’s target audiences, and is supposed to present the diplomatic angle at government discussions, but it is often excluded from sessions with decision-makers and is not a party to shaping policy.
Israeli politicians are distancing themselves from the values of liberal democracies, which most Diaspora Jews also hold dear. With short-term considerations in mind, they prefer alliances with populist leaders who have a record of antisemitism. In so doing, they sin against the values defined by the founders of the state in its proclamation of independence as well as against the stated purpose of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
ISRAEL MUST not regard Diaspora Jewry as simply a cash cow, a political lobby and a pool for immigration. It must engage with those whom the state views as an integral part of its national project. Diaspora Jews should be invited to voice their views on Israel-related issues, and Israel should appreciate their involvement even when the views are critical. We must create ways for Jews to be critical of government policy and at the same time love and support the State of Israel.
The issue of relations with Diaspora Jewry is intertwined with that of the Arab Israeli minority. For Diaspora Jews, equality for the Arabs in Israel is a fundamental liberal axiom, just as is their expectation of the rights they demand for themselves in their countries of residence. There is a measure of hypocrisy in Israeli criticism leveled at Israel’s Arab citizens over their identification with their Palestinian brothers, while expecting US Jews to identify with Israel.
Nonetheless, there is room for optimism. While Israelis are being exposed often to messages of fear and incitement, polls consistently indicate that a majority favors the two-state-for-two-people solution. Despite it all, many elements that were absent in the past now enable the promotion of this solution.
The Arab Peace Initiative accepts the principle of two states within the 1967 borders with certain territorial exchanges, as well as Israel’s veto of the number of refugees allowed to return. The Palestinian Authority’s current leadership does not believe violence serves its people, and it is seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
A change of Israeli leadership, which may be in the offing, could lead Israel and the Palestinians toward a new road that would save the State of Israel’s liberal Zionist dream. When that happens, Israel will no longer have to choose between its character as the nation-state of the Jewish people and being a democracy that protects the rights of its minorities.
The writer is a board member at Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a former diplomat and policy adviser to president Shimon Peres. This article is based on his remarks at the 2019 Annual Conference of the Mitvim Institute, held in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung