Earlier this month, two debates were set off over Israel’s future and the nature of American support for the Jewish state.
The first, prompted by an amendment introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), was about U.S. security assistance for Israel and whether it should be allowed to be used in any West Bank territory that Israel annexes or to facilitate annexation itself.
The second was prompted by Peter Beinart’s call, in the liberal magazine Jewish Currents and later in The New York Times, for American liberal Zionists to drop support for a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to back a single democratic state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. The ensuing debate was about whether Zionism requires a Jewish state or can suffice with a Jewish homeland and whether one state is a more feasible reality than two.
These debates featured cogent arguments on both sides. One of the features common to supporters of all the various positions was an insistence that theirs was the true pro-Israel approach or the true Zionist approach. What is striking, however, is that in both instances, the debate is entirely an internal American one. That does not mean that it is unrelated to Israel; I do not subscribe to the position that angst about what is taking place between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors is entirely a psychodrama about how American Jews feel about themselves and their Judaism. But while having a raging and ranging back and forth about Israel, we are doing it in a hermetic bubble divorced from the conversation about the same issues taking place among the populations that have to live with the consequences.
It is the latest example of the stark gap between American Jews and Israelis.
The policy debate over conditioning aid is about whether it will alter Israel’s behavior and make it less likely that Israel moves to annex parts of the West Bank. Irrespective of where one falls on the policy — and I oppose conditioning security assistance to Israel as it is unlikely to be effective and will have other deleterious consequences — it revolves around the idea that the U.S. should not subsidize Israeli annexation and make it easier for Israel to carry it out. The Van Hollen amendment has support as of this writing from 12 other Democratic senators, and support for the animating idea behind it is demonstrably gaining ground on the left and center.
Yet in the equivalent left and center space in Israel, conditioning aid is as fringe a position as one will find. It is not because Israelis who oppose annexation take the threat of annexation any less seriously, or believe that the consequences will be less dire. It is because they view conditioning security assistance as something that will backfire, not only because the Israeli government will view it as little more than a nuisance easily sidestepped, but because it will make it harder to argue against annexation in a domestic political environment where Israelis feel threatened. Israelis on the left will not embrace any policy that touches on their security; that does not make support for conditioning inherently bad, but unlike opposition to annexation or support for two states, it is a position that is almost solely an American one rather than one shared by our Israeli counterparts.
The two-state versus one-state debate kicked off by Beinart is an even sharper example of this dynamic. American Jews arguing about which of these two positions better represents liberal Zionism is alien to the Israeli debate. Israeli liberal Zionists support two states, full stop; the ones who don’t tend to identify as non-Zionist or post-Zionist. The notion that any vision of Zionism 72 years after Israel’s creation can involve the dismantling of the Jewish state in favor of a Jewish homeland is not one that any Israeli Zionist will accept. Not only is it a concept completely unsupported by Israelis, it is a concept with minimal support among Palestinians, who have yet to discard their own desires to see their national project come to fruition.
It is difficult to imagine a diaspora debate more divorced from the realities and preferences of the people impacted than this one. Whether one is comfortable with this notion or not, Israeli Jews are not going to give up on a Jewish state in favor of one that provides citizenship for everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Criticizing this fact as illiberal is fine, but it renders Beinart’s argument purely academic.
This does not mean that these debates cannot or shouldn’t be had. The first is one over American policy and the second is over American conceptions of Zionism. That puts them both well within the province of what American Jews should be discussing. But make no mistake that when we have these discussions, they are not ones that actually involve Israeli positions and attitudes. They are the ultimate example of American Jews talking amongst ourselves.
Michael Koplow is policy director at the Israel Policy Forum.