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?”
Some liberals actually see Israeli successes in these fields as a reason to feel less positive about Israel because the successes highlight the nation’s strength when pitted against the relatively powerless Palestinians.
Additionally, for years polls have revealed that the main reasons Democrats and liberals support Israel is their understanding that the two nations share certain fundamental values — including democracy, respect for minorities, the rule of law, freedom of the press and gender equality.
Anything that challenges that perception of shared values, including segregating women or Palestinians on buses, denying women the right to pray at the Kotel and imposing loyalty oaths on Palestinians, erodes that basic building block of support for Israel.
But the greatest threat to Israeli democracy remains the occupation. This is a problem not just of public perception, but also of demographic reality. Sergio DellaPergola, who is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Israeli population studies, laid out the stark picture this past February in a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington.
If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, and if current fertility rates among Jews and Arabs remain largely unchanged, Jews will constitute only 54% of the population by 2030. By May 2048, when Israel celebrates its 100th anniversary, 55% of the population of Israel plus the West Bank (but excluding Gaza) will be Arab, and 45% will be Jewish.
That, in a nutshell, is why maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depends so heavily on reaching a two-state solution. As long as Israel continues to build settlements, progressives are not going to take seriously its claim to favor a two-state solution — and the longer it continues to perpetuate this contradiction, the more its credibility will suffer with this important constituency.
AIPAC should be praised for realizing it has a problem. Now it should take the next step and realize that it also has to play a part in working toward a solution — a two-state solution.
Alan Elsner is the vice president of communications at J Street.