Jeffrey Goldberg
International Herald Tribune (Opinion)
May 19, 2008 - 5:48pm

When the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, arrived at a Jerusalem ballroom in February to address the grandees of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he was pugnacious, as is customary, but he was also surprisingly defensive, and not because of his relentlessly compounding legal worries. He knew that scattered about the audience were Jewish leaders who considered him hopelessly spongy - and very nearly traitorous - on an issue they believed to be of cosmological importance: the sanctity of a "united" Jerusalem, under the sole sovereignty of Israel.

These Jewish leaders, who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs, loathe the idea that Olmert, or a prime minister yet elected, might one day cede the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the latent state of Palestine.

These are neighborhoods that the Conference of Presidents could not find with a forked stick. And yet many Jewish leaders believe that a compromise on the boundaries of Jerusalem - or on nearly any other point of disagreement - is an axiomatic invitation to catastrophe.

One leader, Joshua Katzen, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, told me, "I think that Israelis don't have the big view of global jihad that American Jews do, because Israelis are caught up in their daily emergencies." When I asked him how his Israeli friends responded to this, he answered: "They say, 'When your son has to fight, you can have an opinion.' But I tell them that it is precisely because your son has to fight that you have a harder time seeing the larger picture."

When I spoke to Olmert a few days after his meeting with the Conference of Presidents, he made only brief mention of his Diaspora antagonists; he said that certain American Jews he would not name have been "investing a lot of money trying to overthrow the government of Israel." But he was expansive, and persuasive, on the Zionist need for a Palestinian state. Without a Palestine - a viable, territorially contiguous Palestine - Arabs under Israeli control will outnumber the country's Jews.

"We now have the Palestinians running an Algeria-style campaign against Israel, but what I fear is that they will try to run a South Africa-type campaign against us," he said. If this happens, and worldwide sanctions are imposed as they were against the white-minority government, "the state of Israel is finished," Olmert said in an earlier interview. This is why he, and his mentor, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, turned so fiercely against the Jewish settlement movement, which has entangled Israel unnecessarily in the lives of West Bank Palestinians. Once, men like Sharon and Olmert saw the settlers as the vanguards of Zionism; today, the settlements are seen, properly, as the forerunner of a binational state. In other words, as the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy.

The former prime minister, Ehud Barak, told The Jerusalem Post in 1999: "Every attempt to keep hold of this area as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a nondemocratic or a non-Jewish state. Because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don't vote it is an apartheid state that might then become another Belfast or Bosnia."

The unsentimental analysis of men like Olmert and Barak came to mind last week as I spoke to Barack Obama about his views on Israel.

He spoke with seemingly genuine feeling about the post-Holocaust necessity of Israel, about his cultural affinity with Jews and about his adamant opposition to the terrorist group Hamas. He offered some mild criticism of the settlement movement ("not helpful") and promised to be unyielding in his commitment to Israeli security.

But after speaking with him it struck me that, by the standards of rhetorical correctness maintained by such groups as the Conference of Presidents and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, Obama is actually more pro-Israel than either Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak. (To say nothing of John McCain and President George W. Bush, who spoke to the Knesset last week about external threats to Israel's safety but made no mention of the country's missteps.)

This is an existentially unhealthy state of affairs. I am not wishing that the next president be hostile to Israel, God forbid. But what Israel needs is an American president who not only helps defend it against the existential threat posed by Iran and Islamic fundamentalism, but helps it to come to grips with the existential threat from within. A pro-Israel president today would be one who prods the Jewish state - publicly, continuously and vociferously - to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state. Most American Jewish leaders are opposed, not without reason, to negotiations with Hamas, but if the moderates aren't strengthened, Hamas will be the only party left.

And the best way to bring about the birth of a Palestinian state is to reverse - not merely halt, but reverse - the West Bank settlement project. The dismantling of settlements is the one step that would buttress the dwindling band of Palestinian moderates.

So why won't American leaders push Israel publicly? Why do presidential candidates dance so delicately around this question? The answer is obvious: The leadership of the organized American Jewish community has allowed the partisans of settlement to conflate support for the colonization of the West Bank with support for Israel itself. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, in their polemical work "The Israel Lobby," have it wrong: They argue, unpersuasively, that American support for Israel hurts America. It doesn't. But unthinking American support does hurt Israel.

The people of AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents are well-meaning. But what's needed now is a radical rethinking of what it means to be pro-Israel. Barack Obama and John McCain, the likely presidential nominees, are smart, analytical men who understand the manifold threats Israel faces 60 years after its founding. They should be able to talk, in blunt terms, about the full range of dangers faced by Israel, including the danger Israel has brought upon itself. But this won't happen until AIPAC and the leadership of the American Jewish community allow it to happen.


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