On Israel’s 67th Anniversary, Some Thoughts on the US-Israel Relationship

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on April 21, 2015

This evening, with the beginning of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Israel remembers those who gave their lives in its defense or were victims of terrorism. Tomorrow evening, sorrow changes to joy as the nation clebrates the 67th anniversary of its modern rebirth as an independent state on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day).

Founded in the face of enormous challenges and in the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel has given us much to be proud of over the course of its tumultuous history. Its Declaration of Independence, lays out a solemn promise that the “State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

But as a people who have always attached great symbolic significance to numbers, the figure 67 has other connotations. Of course, the Six Day War of 1967 was a moment of tremendous triumph and relief as Israel defeated the Arab armies that had amassed against it. But it was also the starting point for an Occupation which has now extended for 48 years with no end in sight. This was the moment Israel began controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians against their will. As such, it reminds us that Israel’s promise will not be redeemed until it finds a way of making peace with the Palestinians.

Sadly, that dream seems further away now than it has for some time. Just about this time last year, the peace initiative launched by Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed and since then there has been no apparent desire on either side to resume negotiations. Last summer, we witnessed a tragic war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza with an awful death toll that achieved and resolved nothing. And last month, Prime Minister Netanyahu used racist fear-mongering as part of his reelection campaign.

Now, Netanyahu is busy constructing what will be the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. The Prime Minister has shown that he is not serious about a two-state solution and has no intention of negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians. Bolstered by a coalition which will be a partnership of ultra-nationalists and the ultra-orthodox, his policies will likely deepen Israel’s international isolation and quickly lead to more clashes with the Obama administration.

With the US-Israel relationship under growing strain, someone has to step forward to act as its guardian. This is where we at J Street can play a role — along with others in the American Jewish community interested in building a robust, healthy relationship based on those same shared democratic values laid out so eloquently in the Israeli Declaration of Independence 67 years ago.

To fix relations, both sides should recommit to a two-state solution, not just as a vague aspiration to be realized at some undetermined time in the distant future, but as an active strategic and policy priority now. Taking steps away from that outcome endangers not only Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, but its relationship with the US as well.

Both sides also need to stop meddling — or even contribute to the perception of meddling — in the other’s domestic politics. One of the most damaging developments of recent years has been the way in which some wealthy, right-wing donors have worked to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue in the United States. This short-sighted policy will ultimately be strategically disastrous for Israel.

Clearly, the health of the relationship can no longer be left exclusively in the hands of politicians in either country. The last few years have demonstrated that too often, too many have proved unable to resist the temptation to try to reap a short-term political gain at the expense of the long-term health of the relationship itself. It’s up to us to weigh in on these matters to our elected officials and the administration and hold them accountable, because the politicians won’t necessarily do it by themselves.

Ultimately this relationship does not belong to Netanyahu or President Obama; it does not belong to House Speaker John Boehner or any other politician. It does not belong to Sheldon Adelson, despite his billions. It belongs to all of us and we need to fight for it.