As Washington and Jerusalem jockey over terms for renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman insists that his organization will continue to support Israel. But he warns that Israelis make the job harder and hurt their own cause by allowing hardline opponents of Palestinian statehood to speak for them.
He singled out Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett and deputy defense minister Danny Danon. Both have spoken out forcefully in recent weeks against the principle of a two-state peace agreement, contradicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated statements of support for the two-state approach.
“We say we support Israel, but you have to be credible,” Foxman said by telephone from Jerusalem on Sunday. “And with Bennett and Danon, you’re not credible.”
Foxman was describing what he said was the approach of mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations in the complicated crossfire between the State Department, the various factions within the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks a formula to restart peace negotiations.
In a June 3 speech to the American Jewish Committee, Kerry appealed for American Jews to speak out in support of his effort, which focuses in part on winning Israeli concessions to woo that Palestinians back to the table. The weeks since then have seen a steadily intensifying debate among Israelis and their supporters, highlighted by remarks by Danon on June 6 and Bennett on June 17 dismissing the possibility of a two-state peace agreement.
On the other side, Israeli army chief of Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the senior officer in charge of the West Bank, told a conservative Jerusalem think tank on June 18 that failure to restart negotiations could lead to a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and an eruption of unrest on the West Bank.
Within the American Jewish community, Kerry’s appeal drew public statements of support only from a handful of organizations, including the Union for Reform Judaism as well as J Street, Ameinu and the Israel Policy Forum. Other responses ranged from silence to outright rejection. Foxman himself told the Forward last week that it was
inappropriate for an American official to try to engage and recruit American citizens, just because they happen to be Jewish, to put pressure on an Israeli government to do one thing or another. It’s just wrong.
Following Bennett’s June 17 speech to the Yesha Settler’s Council, however, the American Jewish Committee weighed in with a sharply worded statement by AJC executive director David Harris. Calling Bennett’s words “spectacularly shortsighted,” Harris went on to say that because of the minister’s position within Israel’s governing coalition, “it is important that his view be repudiated by the country’s top leaders.”
Harris’s statement, in turn, drew strong praise from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in a June 20 column titled “Why American Jews Matter.” Linking Harris’s statement to Kerry’s appeal (as the Forward did in an editorial last week), Cohen wrote:
To say such language is unusual at major U.S. Jewish organizations is an understatement: Israel has had near carte blanche from them, with negative consequences.
Foxman’s comment about credibility came in response to a question about Cohen’s column. He said he thought Cohen had “either misconstrued or misinterpreted” Harris’s statement, which he said was not intended to pressure the Israeli government.
Cautioning that he spoke only for himself, Foxman he believed Jewish organizational leaders “see our job as advocating in support of Israel. It isn’t our business to tell the Israelis what to do. And I don’t think David told them what to do in response to Kerry.”
At the same time, he pointed to other incidents in the past when he has urged Israeli leaders to frame their policies in terms that their supporters could defend, including a controversial 1991 Op-Ed article he wrote in Yediot Ahronot. Israel was seeking massive loan guarantees for Russian immigrant resettlement, and the first President Bush demanding a settlement freeze. Foxman told Israel’s then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, he recalled, to “make up your mind—you can have settlements or loan guarantees, but you can’t have both.”
“I met Shamir a few days later,” Foxman said. “He said to me, ‘What do you want from us?’ I said, ‘We want you to succeed. But you have to make up your mind.’”
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).