Saturday, October 21, 2006

Is the Jewish left ready for commitment?

Shmuel Rosner - Chief U.S. Correspondent for Haaretz

This week, an Israeli well-versed in the intricate ways of American politics wanted to explain how difficult it is to set up an efficient Washington lobby, one that would exert considerable influence. Jewish leaders are interested in establishing such an organization. To show just how complicated this goal is, he chose to use the following joke: The chicken and the pig decided to give the farmer a present for his birthday. They were trying to figure out what to bring when the chicken had an idea: "Why don't we make him breakfast? What do you say about bacon and eggs?" No way, answered the pig, and he had his reasons: "Bacon and eggs might be a contribution for you, but for me it's a commitment."

And here is the story's summary: Leaders from several organizations and movements are trying to raise funds and resources for the establishment of a new, strong and efficient body that would lobby the U.S. Congress and government to increase their involvement in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully.

The details of their initiative are still vague: It might be based on a new body or an existing one, such as the Israel Policy Forum, but it clearly would aim to advance political negotiations with America as a mediator. Some in the nascent group believe it is necessary to talk with Hamas. Many also believe sanctions against the Palestinian Authority serve no purpose, and that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was wrong to promote them in Congress.

They say they are not trying to compete with AIPAC, and anyone who wants to believe that may do so. The truth is more complicated: Many of the people involved in the new initiative are not happy with AIPAC or other organizations whose pro-Israel activities tend to be too hawkish for them. The new group wants to present a clear and strong voice in favor of immediate peace negotiations. They believe this is vital for both Israel and the United States.

In any case, this might pose new problems for Israel. The new lobby would flank the Israeli government on the left. Its stances would occasionally be seen as a call for U.S. pressure on Israel. The founders - idealists, Zionists, supporters of Israel beyond reproach - believe this is all to ensure Israel's survival. "Like a scout forcefully helping an old lady across the street?" I asked one of them two days ago. "Perhaps," he said. "Before she's hit by a truck."

Friction between Rabin's government and AIPAC - which dragged its feet defiantly because some of its leaders opposed the Oslo Accords - is a well-rehearsed routine. AIPAC learned a lesson or two from this, but some believe the lesson was not enough: The complaints arose again when it refused to show sufficient enthusiasm about the Gaza disengagement plan.

Yet one must admit to a basic fact of life: An Israeli government - assuming its leaders prefer to work under less pressure and no dictates - will always feel more comfortable with an American-Jewish lobby operating slightly to its right, rather than a lobby operating slightly to its left. It faces no danger of being asked to set up more settlements or to assassinate more Hamas operatives, but it certainly may be asked to make unwanted concessions, withdrawals and compromises.

The new lobby will try to promote a known "political recipe": It will back Israeli policies when they promote the lobby's agenda, but in other cases it will try to sabotage them. The distinction some of the founders make between supporting the values of the "Israeli public" and those of the "Israeli government" is not reasonable. The public is represented by its government. They may decide not to support it, but they are well advised to avoid a righteous facade that does not respect the voters and their decisions.

In that sense, the new lobby will be different from AIPAC, which, while its leaders have occasionally lapsed into frivolous head-butting with governments that suddenly have veered to the left, usually stays reasonably in line with Israeli policy. "We treat Israel as a responsible adult," they say at AIPAC, meaning they are not pulling old ladies by the arm. But the establishment of a new lobby also testifies to their failure: While they stay in line with Israel, they have fallen out of line with a major part of their American constituency, which is now looking for a new home.

In any case, this initiative also has a positive aspect, which must be recognized by those who do not support the political ground it lies on: Many American Jews who cannot identify with the existing pro-Israeli bodies have chosen to give up, disengage and alienate themselves. A new lobby, reflecting their worldview, would provide them with a convenient channel to express their sympathy for Israel. This is assuming, of course, that they are ready for the commitment.

As always with Rosner's Blog, the comments are also very worthwhile reading.

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