The press attention at AIPAC goes to the big speeches by prime ministers, superstar lawmakers and the occasional president. Most of the action, though, is in the less ballyhooed small-group workshops and “breakout” sessions, dozens at a time, where groups of delegates listen to experts expound on topics ranging from effective lobbying and working with estate planners to “Syria’s Destructive Behavior,” “Reducing Dependence on Oil,” “Saving American Lives With Israeli Military Innovations” and “The Modern Arab State: The Making of an Unstable Order.”
Every now and then, though, a session turns unpredictable and ends up offering an unexpected peek below the surface of the Israel-American Jewish family psychodrama. One of those moments came on the first day of this year’s conference, shortly after President Obama’s speech.
The session was titled “The West Bank Model,” touted to explore how West Bank’s economy “has grown rapidly for the past two years” with the “help of Israel, the West and some notable Palestinian leaders” — and whether the model can “provide a basis for improved Israeli-Palestinian relations, or founder on “the PA’s recent unity deal with Hamas.”
The speakers were Major General Eitan Dangot, coordinator of government activities in the territories, essentially the military governor of the West Bank and Gaza; retired Brigadier General Eival Gilady, former head of the army’s crucial Planning Branch and now CEO of the Portland Trust, a British foundation that finances West Bank start-ups; and Howard Sumka, former head of U.S. foreign aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza.
The generals’ presentations were eye-openers. Both talked at length about the effectiveness and professionalism of the Palestinian Authority under its prime minister Salam Fayad, the close and effective cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and the ways in which both processes have allowed a West Bank economic boom, a sharp rise in living standards — and an easing of Israeli roadblocks and other security measures, which has cleared the way for even more growth. The standing room crowd, some 200 delegates, listened with seeming rapt attention.
Both generals peppered their talks with cautions, however, about the limits and fragility of the efforts. Dangot warned repeatedly that the progress could be set back suddenly by a terrorist incident “provoked extremists on either side.” Gilady warned that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an economic one — it is a national one that will only be solved by a diplomatic process.” He said Israel’s priorities must be maintaining security, encouraging further growth and “to help Fayad by rolling back the occupation.”
All three points represent sharp departures from the policies of the present Israeli government. None drew any visible reaction from the audience. It wasn’t clear that anyone noticed. Mingling and eavesdropping after the session ended, I couldn’t hear anyone mentioning any of these points.
What did stir the crowd was the third presentation, by the former U.S. aid official, and the response he drew from the generals. Sumka first detailed American efforts to encourage the West Bank economy. Midway through, though, his focus switched to criticizing Israeli restrictions, some security-based, some bureaucratic, variously “burdensome,” “illogical” and “unnecessary,” that frustrate Palestinian businesses and impede growth. He was especially passionate about Gaza, which he said was “not a humanitarian crisis” but “is a mess.” As he spoke, various members of the crowd shook their heads, shifted in their chairs and muttered “not true” and “he’s wrong.”
His comments drew angry retorts from Dangot and especially Gilady, who said that Palestinians in Gaza share responsibility for their hardships and that restrictions would not be eased at the cost of Israeli lives. “I don’t think there is another situation in history where a territory is shooting rockets on a neighboring country and the other side is feeding them,” Gilady said. Each of his statements drew loud applause and cheers—the only applause of the 90-minute session.
The bottom line: An important group of American Jewish activists was given a stark demonstration of the perception gap between the thinking of the generals in the field and the policy nostrums of the politicians and lobbyists — viewing the Palestinian Authority as partners and the occupation as the problem, versus blaming everything on the Palestinians and calling peace impossible. But the important insight went right over the crowd’s heads. The generals didn’t make a big deal out of it, because they take it for granted. The crowd was waiting to hear Israel defended against the Arabs. And the voice of American liberalism zoomed straight in on Palestinian suffering and Israeli sins, rather than Israel’s needs and the possibilities of progress, which drove the Israeli doves instinctively into the arms of the hawks. That’s why we’re stuck.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).