Word on the Street: Israel’s Friends Are Worried

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on January 24, 2016

As a passionate supporter of Israel, I find it hard to watch Israel rebuked on the international stage — even when I agree with the critique. No one likes to see their friends criticized publicly.

But when public criticism comes from some of Israel’s strongest allies, as it did this week, everyone who cares about the country’s future needs to sit up and listen.

In a speech to the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies on Monday, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro expressed his government’s serious concerns about the dangerous path the country is on.

“We are concerned and perplexed by Israel’s strategy on settlements,” Shapiro said. “Settler outposts are being legalized — despite earlier pledges to the United States not to do so — while routine, administrative demolition of Palestinian structures continues. Again, the question we ask is a simple one: what is Israel’s strategy?”

It was easy to see the anguish and frustration on Ambassador Shapiro’s face. All of us know him as a longtime friend of Israel’s, deeply sympathetic, with an understanding of the challenges it faces. There can be no doubt that his fears about the path Israel’s government is currently heading down come from a place of genuine respect and worry.

Those worries were echoed last week by some of Israel’s other allies in the European Union. Alarmed by the entrenchment of settlements and lack of progress towards a two-state solution, they affirmed their intention to reinforce the vital distinction between the state of Israel and the occupied territory and clarified that EU agreements with Israel apply only to the state of Israel within the pre-1967 border.

As part of the EU’s commitment to helping enforce this distinction, it also issued guidance in its policy of labeling products made in the West Bank settlements differently than those made in the state of Israel — emphasizing that “This does not constitute a boycott of Israel, which the EU strongly opposes.” These conclusions were backed by all 28 EU members — including many countries that have supported Israel for decades and demonstrated time and again their unwavering support for its right to live in peace and security.

These are not spurious attacks coming from Israel’s enemies. They are vitally important — if not desperate — warnings from Israel’s friends. These friends see that the current Israeli leadership is protecting and prioritizing the settlement movement at the expense of Israel’s future as a liberal democracy, and they are trying to do anything reasonable and in their power to avert catastrophe. One can imagine they don’t relish the role of critic. But they also understand their inaction could prove disastrous.

Sadly, if unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have expressed outrage in response to these statements by the United States and the EU. They have refused to acknowledge even an ounce of legitimacy to the critiques of their policy, to recognize that under international law Israel is occupying the West Bank illegally and that it is unacceptable to the world for Israel to control millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack the rights of the Israeli settlers who live alongside them.

The Netanyahu government and its close allies in the settler movement are choosing to stake Israel’s reputation on the legitimacy of the occupation. In their insistence that Israel is the settlements and the settlements are Israel, they have begun to treat all those who oppose the occupation and actively support the two-state solution as enemies of the state — including those who are in reality some of Israel’s best friends.

But friends of Israel, devoted to its future as a secure, democratic Jewish homeland, have an obligation to push back against these efforts. Some of Israel’s current leaders may be blind to the consequences of turning their back on the two-state solution, on democratic principles, and on their friends and allies — but we are not.

We refuse to turn our backs on the millions of Israelis and Palestinians who suffer from the ongoing conflict, or on our belief in the need to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy. We will not throw up our hands in frustration or shy away from uncomfortable conversations. We will speak out — and do everything we can to help wiser policy prevail.