July 9, 2009
If you can’t convince ’em, accuse ’em. That’s the advice from The Israel Project (TIP) for pro-Israel activists answering questions about settlements. Rather than try to defend Israeli settlements, change the subject. If that doesn’t work, try accusing those who advocate removing Jewish settlements of promoting “a kind of ethnic cleansing to move all Jews” from the West Bank.
TIP calls that “the best settlement argument” in its 2009 Global Language Dictionary, a manual on how to talk to journalists and opinion molders about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I received a copy of the settlements chapter over the electronic transom, but the 140-page document is closely held and not for the public or the press to see. Look for more to begin leaking out soon.
“The single toughest issue” to defend among Americans generally and American Jews in particular is settlements, says the manual, and “hostility towards them and towards Israeli policy that appears to encourage settlement activity.”
The Obama administration is pressing a very reluctant Israeli government to freeze all settlement construction.
Instead of defending settlements, go on the attack, advises TIP, a Washington-based group that seeks to enhance Israel’s image among journalists and policy makers.
According to Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, former Amb. Zalman Shoval, a close advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a Washington appearance last month that no Israeli government should be expected to engage in ethnic cleansing against its own citizens, i.e., settlers.
Similarly, TIP says the “best argument” for settlements is this: Since Arabs citizens of Israel “enjoy equal rights,” telling Jews they can’t live in the Palestinian state “is a racist idea.” (Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said this week that Jews would be welcome to live in the Palestinian state and enjoy the same rights Israeli Arabs enjoy in Israel.)
Until Israeli policy changes, TIP suggests deflecting critics by mentioning Israel’s “willingness to negotiate” and stressing how “Israel has already sacrificed in the name of peace” and got terrorists’ missiles in return.
It falls back on the old and disproven argument that “the settlements are necessary for the security of Israel.” That may have been true decades ago, but not in this missile age.
And dovish groups believe exactly the opposite — that the settlements are a security liability. “American Jews increasingly realize that settlements undermine Israel’s ability to survive, long term, as a democratic Jewish state and that they undermine America’s national security interest in a stable, peaceful Middle East,” said Nir.
Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Knesset member from the pro-settler National Religious Party who served in Menachem Begin’s government, called Netanyahu’s insistence on expanding settlement construction “harmful to Israel’s security and national interests.”
Begin agreed to a three-month settlement freeze in 1978 to give peace negotiations a chance, and he was no less a Zionist than Netanyahu, Ben Meir said. A six-month freeze today will do “no harm” to Israel and will give the Arabs a chance to “adopt genuine moves toward normalization.”
The Obama administration is trying to turn a settlement freeze into a thaw in Arab attitudes toward Israel through a package of reciprocal confidence-building measures. The advantage for Israel is clear: if the Arabs come through and begin normalization, there is something to build on at the peace table. But if the Arabs respond — as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius predicts — with demands for more concessions, Israel can thaw the settlement freeze, and responsibility for the lost opportunity will clearly be on the Arab side.
The Netanyahu government’s opposition to the freeze is more political than security-minded. Yet despite a letter from half of Netanyahu’s Likud Knesset faction opposing a freeze (and Palestinian statehood), it is unlikely they or other right-wing partners would bring down the government over the issue and lose their fiefdoms and access to the taxpayers’ cookie jar. Netanyahu, on the other hand, by supporting the two-state solution and the settlement freeze, would have a good chance of forming a centrist coalition and healing any rift with Washington.
The TIP manual concedes, “Public opinion is hostile to the settlements — even among supporters of Israel.”
That is evident on Capitol Hill as well as in the Jewish community. Right-wing groups and political partisans are trying to whip up opposition to the administration’s policies — including some virulent personal attacks on Obama reminiscent of last year’s smear campaign — but it isn’t working. A Gallup poll in May showed the President enjoys a 79 percent approval rating among American Jews.
Netanyahu, whose popularity here doesn’t compare, is smart enough to know he’d lose in a head-to-head confrontation with Obama.
“The government cannot stand against the entire world for long without the support of American Jewry, and when the Israeli people itself is divided. The government must demonstrate national responsibility, and the sooner the better,” said Ben Meir.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.