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Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Haaretz | 0 comments

What do American Jews want from Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu has made it perfectly clear what he expects of American Jews. But Israel’s prime minister should know what American Jews expect of him.

Netanyhu Addresses the General Assembly

(Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu wants American Jews to help him deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran. Fine and good. The Obama administration is working nonstop to close a deal with Iran’s leaders, and it is far from clear that it will be as tough as it needs to be. Any agreement reached will be potentially dangerous, but the worst-case scenario is an agreement that would be catastrophic for Israel, Middle Eastern stability and American interests throughout the world.

Some American Jews have thrown themselves into the effort to prevent a bad deal with Iran. Since many U.S. Jews voted for President Barack Obama and continue to view him positively, one might have expected a more hesitant reaction. But the simple fact is that the ayatollahs pose a grave threat to the Jewish state, and American Jews continue to feel a deep responsibility for Israel’s welfare.

The result has been much worry and concern, and immediate, instinctive and strong engagement by the Jewish community on the Iran issue. But responsibility, of course, works both ways.

And they feel that they are entitled to it.

After all, as Netanyahu has repeatedly said, Israel is not simply a place where Israelis live; it is the homeland of the Jewish people. And since that is so, then surely American Jews — tied to their homeland by bonds of history, culture and religion — can expect that Israel will display some sensitivities to their concerns as well as the other way around.

All of this is an issue because American Jews are worried about Israel’s new government. They are worried that extremist religious forces will further undermine religious freedom in Israel, making Reform and Conservative Judaism the losers in the process. And even as they focus on Iran, they worry as well about the Israeli-Palestinian question. The conflict will not go away; it never goes away. And American Jews are concerned that extremist political forces in Israel’s coalition will make it more difficult to present Israel’s case in a positive light.

There are no magic solutions here, but American Jews do know that if they are to make the argument for Israel, they must have one specific thing from Netanyahu: a public commitment to a two-state solution. And they want the prime minister to affirm it on multiple occasions and in plain language. In other words,

The reason is not that two states are likely to come into being any time soon; rather, it is that a two-state solution is the blueprint that undergirds American policy on Israel. It reflects American values, and provides the rationale for America’s strong defense of Israel in international forums.

Netanyahu understands this very well. When, just before Israel’s March 17 election, he appeared to declare that he had given up on two states, he was quick to reverse himself after the election, saying he would back two states only under the right conditions. Under this interpretation, his initial remarks were, as a right-wing commentator put it, “ill-phrased” and uttered in the heat of political battle, rather than a rejection of the two-state principle.

But the problem is that Netanyahu virtually never talks about the position he supposedly holds. Since declaring his embrace of a two-state program in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu has spent six years doing his best to avoid the topic. He has not rescinded his support, but then again, he rarely asserts it.

It is this this maddening ambiguity that has led the Obama administration to talk about reassessing its options because it questions Netanyahu’s commitment to two states. It also accounts for the frustration of many American Jews. They know, after all, that Netanyahu’s equivocations have consequences. To be sure, Israel’s enemies on campus, such as the leaders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign and the equally objectionable Jewish Voice for Peace, will continue their anti-Israel work no matter what Netanyahu says.

All the same, that work is made much easier by a prime minister who is hesitant to affirm the two-state principle that is the very foundation of much pro-Israel advocacy, on campus and in Congress. It is true that the government Netanyahu leads is not formally committed to two states for two peoples. The coalition agreement contains no reference to two states or to peace negotiations — a distressing matter in and of itself. And Netanyahu fears riling up the settler leaders in his coalition, including those in his own party. But as we saw in his recently issued clarification, that did not prevent him from making his personal views known at a moment of crisis.

It will take some courage for him to do that. And it is true that American Jews are insisting on it for reasons that are partly selfish: It will make it easier for them to express their support for Israel. But they are also convinced that it is the right thing to do and that the time has come for honesty and clarity.

And they know that if Netanyahu concedes the point, finally expressing with conviction what he says he believes, Israel will be far stronger as a result.


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