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Why Israelis and Americans are angry

09/06/2009

Almost everyone says that Israelis are angry with the United States and President Obama, and Americans are angry at Israel. If "everyone says it," it must be true. Israelis are also angry at American Jews, supposedly, and American Jews are angry at Israel. It's supposedly all about the US demand for a freeze on building in West bank settlements, an issue that revealed a gap of understanding and trust between the Israeli government and the American administration, and between Israelis and (some) American Jews.

The poll data on Israel seem to be unambiguous. According to one survey, only 12% of Jewish Israelis believe President Obama's policies favor Israel. According to another survey, only 4% of Jewish Israelis believe President Obama's policies favor Israel. At least one person expressed the bizarre opinion that this is due to Israeli racism. Since 31% of Jewish Israelis believed Obama is pro-Israel last May, and larger percentages approved of his election, this is unlikely, unless most Israelis had not noticed Obama's skin pigmentation at the time.

US opinion is not as unequivocal. The National Jewish Democratic Committee and the J Street lobby group insist that they represent a majority of Jews who back President Obama. Polls tell a different story. One poll taken in August found that while 92% of American Jewish Democrats support President Obama's policies in general, 52% of them do not agree that Arabs will leave in peace with Israel if the Palestinians are given a state, and the same percentage support continued building in the settlements to allow for natural growth. A recent poll of all American voters found that 53% oppose and 43% support the Palestinian position that negotiations should not be resumed until there is a total settlement freeze. The same poll also found that 72% of American voters agreed that Israel should be allowed to "accommodate natural growth" in the settlements, and that there has been a significant increase in support for Israel.

Thomas Friedman offered some "marriage counseling" on this issue last month. Friedman is certainly right that Israelis who characterized Jewish officials in the American administration as "self-hating" because they favored Obama's policies were out of line. There is no reason to expect that American officials of any religious or ethnic origin will do anything other than fulfill the duties of their office to the best of their abilities and be loyal to their boss and the American government. On the other hand, this should also have been remembered by those who early insisted that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a neo-con Likud Zionist and an agent for Israel.

But Friedman's "counseling" probably didn't get a very favorable reception in Israel, since it was along the lines of, "We are right and you are wrong and that's the end of it." Freedman wrote, "Bottom line: Israelis need to understand this is not the Bush administration anymore..." It seems Israeli Jews do understand that. However, that doesn't mean they have to like it. Friedman, who was personally involved in the Saudi peace initiative, may not be entirely objective.

Without deciding who is right and who is wrong, I would like to try to explain the positions of each side, each of which seem to be ignoring salient facts in favor of others.

A substantial percentage of Israeli Jews believe that Obama is neutral between Israelis and Palestinians, which is not such a terrible "accusation" after all. There are certainly aspects of American policy that cannot be said to favor Israel, and it is the right of Israeli Jews to evaluate American policy as they see fit, without being accused of racism.

That said, Israelis seem to have a blind spot about the settlements, and the damage they are doing to Israel's international standing. That is even more true in Europe than in the United States. There is no doubt that the vast majority of world opinion insists that Israel must eventually dismantle the settlements and that the refusal of Israel to consider a real settlement freeze has caused anger throughout the world and isolated Israel. Even relatively hawkish Israelis realize that the dream of Greater Israel is doomed and that it will be necessary to withdraw from most, if not all of the West Bank and dismantle the settlements that are being built there. On the other hand, the Obama administration emphasis on the settlement freeze over and above all other issues has contributed to Israeli isolation. This is a major point that has fueled the anger of Israelis.

From the official point of view of the American administration and liberal American Jewish groups like J-Street, the case is cut and dried. The Israelis stop building settlements, a peace treaty is concluded, Israel gives up some land, all the Arab states make peace with israel, and everyone lives happily ever after. The Palestinians undertook to curb incitement and to end armed terrorist bands and they have done so. Now it is Israel's turn to comply with the first phase of the roadmap by freezing settlement construction and removing illegal outposts.

From the Israeli Jewish point view, that vision is mistaken. While Hamas is in power in Gaza, there can be no peace treaty. Neither the Obama administration nor the government of Mahmoud Abbas offers a practical way to eliminate Hamas, and there seems to be no chance of forming a united government in which Hamas agrees to reasonable peace terms. If there should be such a united government, it is more than likely that Hamas would take it over, and the Gaza situation would spread to the West Bank.

Worse, there doesn't seem to be much hope for reasonable peace terms from the "moderate" government of Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has insisted over and over on "Right of Return" for Palestinian refugees, and Israeli evacuation of all of "Arab" East Jerusalem, including the Jewish quarter of the Old City, the wailing wall and the Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus. Abbas and Arab countries have also explicitly refused to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, because that would void the possibility that descendants of Palestinian refugees could enter the country and form a majority, ending Jewish self-determination. His positions are backed by the Arab states and were reaffirmed in the recent Fatah foreign policy platform. Taysir Tamimi, the Palestinian Authority appointed Chief Justice of Jerusalem, insists that there is no evidence that Jews ever lived in Jerusalem or that there ever was a temple.

To most Jewish Israelis, the wonderful "peace deal" proposition looks like "If you give up your capital city and your right to self determination, we will make 'peace' with you." Giving up national self-determination and your capital city are terms appropriate for unconditional surrender, not peace.

As for Palestinian compliance with Phase 1 of the Road map, the rockets and mortars launched regularly from Gaza are proof for Israelis that the Palestinians have not disarmed terrorist groups. Statements like that of Sheikh Tamimi, as well as Palestinian Authority sponsored programs that teach Palestinian children that Haifa is the largest port in Palestine, make it clear that the Palestinian Authority has not ended incitement.

From the Israeli point of view, with no peace in sight, what is the point of a settlement freeze? The settlement freeze would not be a temporary one until peace is rapidly concluded. It would be a semi-permanent blight on all Jewish communities, including those that by "consensus" will remain Israeli territory, such as Gush Etzion. as negotiations dragged out indefinitely.

In Israeli eyes, the inability of the Obama administration to obtain any concessions from the Palestinians or the Arabs regarding right of return, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, an end to incitement or the Jerusalem issue, as well as the American unwillingness to apply the same sort of heavy handed public pressure on the Palestinians that they applied to Israel, constituted a one-sided and unfair policy that isolated Israel in order to obtain a pointless result. Moreover, the American government was apparently violating a verbal understanding reached previously with the Bush administration, concerning natural growth in settlements.

What hides behind the term "settlements?" For the Americans, "settlements" do not include only the communities in the West Bank that house about 250,000 people, They also include all of the Jewish neighborhoods east of the 1949 armistice border ("green line") in East Jerusalem. Americans and Palestinians insisted that all building must end there as well. Jerusalem had a special status, as it was to have been internationalized according to UN resolutions. The internationalization, which was to have included a wide area encompassing Bethlehem, was never implemented. Instead, the Jordanians annexed Jerusalem without international recognition in 1949 and the Israelis did the same following the Six Day War. There is a consensus of Jewish Israelis that at least a part of East Jerusalem must remain under Israeli sovereignty. Israeli Jews were forced by the Americans to choose between a settlement freeze and Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Of course, they chose the latter.

A large percentage of Israelis understand that the settlements are doomed. Israeli anger is not mostly about settlements themselves. The American government could have accomplished a lot more without evoking Israeli anger if they had handled the issue less clumsily.

Perhaps the demonstration of a "tough line" against Israel is America's way of winning back Arab and Palestinian support and trust. However, the Israeli right has managed to capitalize on the anger of the Israeli public. Playing on the various issues for all they are worth and then some, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have obtained American agreement to a compromise settlement freeze that excludes Jerusalem. However, even before this agreement was in place, the Israeli government violated it by announcing approval of 500 housing units in addition to the 2,500 being built, evoking a pointed public scolding from the Americans. Evidently, Netanyahu felt he needed the "in your face" announcement to get support for the freeze from his right wing coalition. He is counting on continued Israeli anger to support the government against the Americans. Unfortunately, he may be right. When people are angry, they don't always think rationally, and they may do destructive things. Israelis should not forget that the United States still holds all the aces.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000775.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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