Reasons for Optimism about Israeli Politics
I know that many in the American Jewish community insist on grim pessimism when it comes to Israel. But there are actually some reasons for Diaspora Jews to be optimistic about politics in Israel and about how others are relating to the Jewish State.
1. Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, finally understands the need to speak civilly and supportively about all streams of Judaism.
This is a matter of style rather than substance, and it is long overdue. Nonetheless, when members of Netanyahu’s government spoke contemptuously about the non-Orthodox religious movements recently, Mr. Netanyahu sternly rebuked them. True, not much has happened to challenge the power of the disreputable government-sponsored Rabbinate, and little will change as long as the current coalition, with its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox partners, is in charge. Still, words, tone, and an attitude of respect for different approaches to Judaism are important to Jews everywhere and to American Jews in particular. If after a decade in power the Prime Minister has learned that lesson, he deserves our thanks.
2. Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, has finally found his voice.
Herzog, leader of the opposition, is known in the Diaspora for his honesty and decency, but not necessarily for his toughness. But the laid-back Herzog has come out fighting for a new diplomatic platform for the Labor Party that calls for unilateral steps by Israel to separate from the Palestinians. The purpose of the plan, recently endorsed by Labor, is to preserve the two-state option while recognizing that a peace agreement is unlikely in the near future.
American Jews are fully aware that Israelis must chart their own course. Nonetheless, a large majority of American Jews support two states, are skeptical of Palestinian intentions, and believe that Israel needs a plan to counter Palestinian resistance and terror. The Herzog platform, therefore, seems eminently sensible to them. And they are delighted that the party of Ben-Gurion, Meir, Rabin, and Peres has put forward an alternative to what most see as the do-nothing approach of the current government.
3. Hilary Clinton and Marco Rubio have been strengthened by the recent primaries and caucuses.
If you believe in a strong and assertive America playing a central role in world affairs, you do not want a populist or self-styled “maverick” as President of the United States. As I have written previously, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz all fall into this category. There may be something to be said for populists in the domestic realm, but politicians of this sort have little understanding of foreign leaders and cultures and, despite a tendency to utter blood-curdling threats, are reluctant to apply American power. “I’ll protect you,” they say, while strongly implying that absent a direct attack on the homeland, what happens elsewhere is none of America’s business.
A good example of how this works is the recent comment by Donald Trump on his desire to remain “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As noted in his hasty clarifications, the point is not that he really is neutral. He is not; he is friendly to Israel. The point, rather, is that he is simply ignorant and out of his depth on foreign affairs. And therefore comfort is to be found in the lead that Hilary Clinton is opening up over Bernie Sanders, while Marco Rubio has emerged as Trump’s primary rival in the Republican field.
Clinton understands foreign affairs and is committed to American activism; she is by far the senior establishment figure remaining in the race—and in the foreign policy area “establishment” is a compliment and a virtue. But Rubio too would not abdicate America’s responsibilities toward American allies, Israel included; with Bush gone and Kasich fading, there is at least a chance that moderate and establishment Republicans will rally to Rubio’s side. So all is not lost for those of us who want the United States to uphold American interests and maintain American ideals in the world.
4. Israeli Jews are finally talking about changing the borders of “united Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem is a mess. I say that as someone who loves Jerusalem, warts and all; to me, it remains a city of unsurpassed beauty and palpable holiness, a unique synthesis of the ancient and the modern.
Nonetheless, it is a mess, and its governance is a disgrace. Furthermore, it is well on the way to becoming a bi-national city rather than a Jewish one. Approximately 40% of its residents are Arabs, many of whom receive no government services at all and who live in areas where not only Jewish Israelis never go but where Israeli police and municipal workers never go.
Former Knesset member Haim Ramon has recently established an organization entitled “The Movement for Saving Jewish Jerusalem,” which proposes returning 28 Palestinian villages and refugee camps to the West Bank. In his plan, the Old City, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Scopus would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but those Arab villages that were never part of Jerusalem would not.
If there is ever to be peace, the State of Israel must have a stable Jewish majority, and its capital, Jerusalem, must have a stable Jewish majority as well. Under the Ramon plan, the Jewish population of Jerusalem would rise from 60% to 80%.
In the absence of Jerusalem, there is no Jewish faith and no Jewish future. But the borders of the city must be set in a way that makes sense. Not long ago, even mentioning this matter would be taboo. The fact that Ramon is prepared to raise the subject now is an encouraging sign.
All of these developments are just a beginning, but nonetheless, they offer us cause for hope.