Israel’s hawkish strategic affairs minister was met with a chorus of boos at the annual dinner of the Zionist Organization of America when he invoked his government’s recent partial moratorium on Jewish settlement expansions in the West Bank.
The jeers continued even as Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, a former Israeli general and current senior Likud party leader, made it clear that the freeze did not affect any ongoing projects or public works.
But when Ya’alon declared, “This, of course, doesn’t mean that we compromise on the right of the Jewish people to live in any part of Eretz Israel,” the crowd cheered.
The incident at the December 13 dinner came shortly after a speech by Morton Klein. The outspoken national president of the 112-year-old group won some of the biggest cheers of the night when he directly challenged recent concessions made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the peace process. The cheers continued as Klein questioned the very value of the process itself.
Klein was careful not to criticize Netanyahu. And the Israeli leader addressed the group via a two- minute videotaped greeting. But the contrasting reactions to Ya’alon’s brief mention of Israel’s effort to accommodate American and world pressure, and to Klein’s speech, raised questions about the prime minister’s standing with his right-wing base here, even as he faces similar resistance in Israel.
In his address, Klein decried as “racist” calls for a settlement freeze on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The territory, which militant settlers view as rightfully Israel’s to rule, is seen, with Gaza, as the area for a Palestinian state by those who accept a two-state solution. At least conditionally, Netanyahu now counts himself among these.But Klein dismissed Palestinian claims to the land in question. And he argued that continued threats to Israel’s security by Palestinians disqualified them from the right to a state.
As for the peace process itself, “Israel can and will survive without peace, as they have done since 1948,” Klein told his dinner guests.
In a later interview Klein bluntly criticized Netanyahu’s nods toward the peace process.
The Israeli leader’s partial moratorium on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank “sends a clear and erroneous message that the Arab-Israeli conflict is due to Jews living in Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem,” he said. Netanyahu may hope that the freeze will shift the blame for a lack of progress to the Palestinians, “but I think he’s wrong about that,” Klein said. “The world only now will pressure Israel more.”
Klein added, “We’re against discussing a Palestinian state until they show how they’re becoming part of the civilized world.” He predicted that Netanyahu’s conditional acceptance of a Palestinian state — announced in a June speech at Bar-Ilan University — would backfire. “I think what Bibi’s doing will not bear fruit,” Klein said.
The $500-per-plate gala, held at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt hotel, attracted some 700 people, according to Klein. One of its main purposes was to bestow an award for Zionism on Sheldon G. Adelson, the billionaire CEO and chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Adleson is a major Netanyahu supporter. Yet it was Klein’s stand that Adelson praised in his own talk. “Each time he opened up his mouth, I thought it was me talking,” he said.
A spokesman for Adelson stated later that his support for Netanyahu “has not changed.” But Klein disclosed that Adelson will travel to Israel soon to lobby Netanyahu against the settlement moratorium.
Gala attendees were concerned about the settlement freeze, but many were more eager to blame the President Obama than Netanyahu.
“He’s squeezing Israel,” Herbert Wolfzahn, a ZOA member, said of President Obama. “It’s our land, and Obama would like to see it judenrein,” he said, using the Nazi term for land that had been cleansed of Jews.
Another ZOA member, Ora Kesselman, said that the organization’s role was to defend the Israeli prime minister from negative American influence. “We want to make sure Netanyahu will not cave to pressure,” Keffelman said.
Some nonmembers attending were more willing to criticize Netanyahu. Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, which advocates permanent Israeli rule of all of the West Bank and Gaza, said she never had high hopes for the current government.
“The Bar-Ilan speech and the mention of a Palestinian state was of course a sound of alarm about what was to come. This freeze just reinforced it all,” she said.
But at least one attendee thought the boos directed at Ya’alon were unnecessary. “It’s not permanent,” Jason Liebowitz said of the freeze.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.