News that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee wants to reach out more to Democrats and progressives inspires mixed emotions.
On one hand, it’s good that the pre-eminent pro-Israeli lobbying organization is coming around to recognizing that liberals are assets to pro-Israel advocacy. But the way it’s going about building support for Israel among this constituency, primarily by using so-called “beyond the conflict” issues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.
By “beyond the conflict” issues, the intention is to highlight anything positive about Israel while completely ignoring mention of the Palestinians or the occupation. Thus, one could play up Israel’s social welfare safety net, its success in research and development and in information technology startups, its drip agriculture technology and aid to developing nations, and its relatively inclusive attitude toward gay men and lesbians — to give but a few examples.
Some Israeli diplomats have been pushing this approach for years, promoting tours to Israel that include visits to electric car startup, Better Place, near Herzliya, tours of the desalination plants in Hadera or Ashkelon, and visits to the Negev to see a solar energy park.
Almost every day, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sends out information on these topics, as well as on Tel Aviv nightlife, pop music, the booming gay scene — anything other than settlements and the occupation.
All these projects are interesting and worthy in their own right — but none will challenge progressives’ unease with Israel. The simple truth is, we will never get “beyond the conflict” until we solve the conflict. The argument will always boil down to the way Israel treats the Palestinians and whether it truly desires peace and will do what it takes to achieve it.
In focus groups that I have observed, the response of participants when told of Israel’s prowess in social or economic policy or technological innovation can be boiled down to this: “If you’re so smart, why can’t you solve the Palestinian problem?”