Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 4, 2014

Does Israel Have a Plan B?

Last week, I wrote about Israel’s lack of attractive options now that Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative has collapsed in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. Among the possible options being floated is the one that Michael Oren, Israel’s immediate past ambassador to the U.S. calls “Plan B,” which advocates for Israel to attempt to unilaterally determine its borders. In that piece, I said that Oren’s idea involved “a withdrawal to the security fence that would remove some settlements and make it clear that the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will forever be part of Israel.” He has written me to say that this is untrue and asserts that his idea specifically rejects a retreat to the fence and instead says:

At this stage, Plan B is about principles, not specific borders. Maximum security capabilities for Israel. Maximum number of Israelis within Israel. And maximum degree of international–especially American—backing.

I’m happy to correct the record on this point. However, while I was wrong to specifically tie his Plan B to the fence, his eschewal of specifics makes it easy to imagine that any such unilateral move is likely to come pretty close to the current position of the fence in much of the West Bank. Yet even if we leave the fence out of the discussion, I’m afraid I can’t help being skeptical about the scheme. Oren—a brilliant historian and COMMENTARY contributor who ably represented Israel in Washington for four years—believes that it is in Israel’s interest to withdraw settlements, though not the Israel Defense Forces, from parts of the West Bank. He thinks that doing so will mean that the definition of Israel’s borders will be set by Israelis rather than being held hostage to the whims of a Palestinian leadership that seems incapable of making peace. While this is not as reckless as Ariel Sharon’s bold gamble for peace in which he pulled every last soldier, settlement, and Jew out of Gaza in 2005, it would still be a mistake.

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Last week, I wrote about Israel’s lack of attractive options now that Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative has collapsed in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. Among the possible options being floated is the one that Michael Oren, Israel’s immediate past ambassador to the U.S. calls “Plan B,” which advocates for Israel to attempt to unilaterally determine its borders. In that piece, I said that Oren’s idea involved “a withdrawal to the security fence that would remove some settlements and make it clear that the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will forever be part of Israel.” He has written me to say that this is untrue and asserts that his idea specifically rejects a retreat to the fence and instead says:

At this stage, Plan B is about principles, not specific borders. Maximum security capabilities for Israel. Maximum number of Israelis within Israel. And maximum degree of international–especially American—backing.

I’m happy to correct the record on this point. However, while I was wrong to specifically tie his Plan B to the fence, his eschewal of specifics makes it easy to imagine that any such unilateral move is likely to come pretty close to the current position of the fence in much of the West Bank. Yet even if we leave the fence out of the discussion, I’m afraid I can’t help being skeptical about the scheme. Oren—a brilliant historian and COMMENTARY contributor who ably represented Israel in Washington for four years—believes that it is in Israel’s interest to withdraw settlements, though not the Israel Defense Forces, from parts of the West Bank. He thinks that doing so will mean that the definition of Israel’s borders will be set by Israelis rather than being held hostage to the whims of a Palestinian leadership that seems incapable of making peace. While this is not as reckless as Ariel Sharon’s bold gamble for peace in which he pulled every last soldier, settlement, and Jew out of Gaza in 2005, it would still be a mistake.

Oren is right that his Plan B has the virtue of being in the best traditions of Zionism. Rather than waiting for others to decide where Israel should be, the Jews would act on their own and then wait for the world to accept their actions. It would balance the justice of Israel’s rights to the land against the pragmatic need to separate from the Palestinians and to grant them the right of self-determination. And by leaving the IDF in place, it will not lead to a repeat of Sharon’s fiasco in which Gaza was transformed into a terrorist base/independent Palestinian state in all but name that rained down missiles on Israel with impunity.

But any move that will leave the Israeli army in the territories will do nothing to increase international or American support for the Jewish state. While the settlements are the focus of much of the anger about Israel’s presence in the West Bank, so long as the IDF patrols parts of the territories—even without the burden of protecting Jewish communities there—it will still be termed an occupation. And, as such, it will not diminish the fervor of those advocating the boycott of Israel. Nor will it even stop those who specifically advocate the boycott of products from settlements rather than all of Israel since few of those communities that will be abandoned are producing much that is exported.

Unfortunately, like all past Israeli territorial withdrawals it would be quickly forgotten and the focus of international pressure would be on what was retained with no concern for past sacrifices. Both the Palestinian and the international position on the borders would be one that started with the assumption that the Palestinians would get whatever was left by Israel as part of Plan B. The bargaining would then be about how much of what Israel retained in Plan B, if anything at all.

Israel would be forced to go through the agony of uprooting tens of thousands of people from their homes with no upgrade in its security, its diplomatic position, or international support. The retreat would not be interpreted as a sign of moderation or a desire for peace that involved a painful parting from lands to which Jews have rights. Rather, the Jewish state’s critics and even some who call themselves its friends will see it as further proof that Israel had “stolen Palestinian land” and had decided to render some but not all of the restitution that they should be forced to make. It would merely increase pressure to force the removal of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem that Oren rightly wishes to preserve as part of Israel.

Oren is right that Israel can’t, as he told the Times of Israel back in February, “outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.” He’s also right that there is no perfect solution to Israel’s problems. As long as the Palestinians define their national identity more in terms of rejecting Zionism rather than building their own state, the conflict will not end. Waiting for the sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians that will make peace possible is difficult. But this plan, like every other solution that seeks to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace without Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state, will worsen Israel’s position rather than strengthen it.

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The Fight Against BDS on the Left

Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

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Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.

Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.

That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.”  What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.

Because this story is delusional and vile, it is no surprise that those who wish to tell it must try to shut up anyone who objects. But the fight against them is consequently a fight for the free, truth-seeking soul of the university. If we are to win that fight in higher education, we will need people on the left to take it up. Fortunately, Schneiderman and Friedman are not the only ones who have noticed and spoken or written against a growing anti-liberalism in whose eyes, as Michelle Goldberg puts it in the Nation, “old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system.” Consider the founding statement of the new Academic Advisory Council for the Third Narrative, a left-leaning organization that favors a two-state solution and opposes BDS. These “progressive scholars and academics” reject “all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.” They single out the academic boycotts that have been a favored tool of BDS because they are “discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge.”

I understand why some friends of Israel are hard on people like the members of the Academic Advisory Council who, in the name of evenhandedness, feel compelled to blame both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for “rhetoric … which demonizes and dehumanizes the other,” without acknowledging, as A.J. Adler complains, the “institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” This “pox on both your houses” line, which the Council also applies to the debate in the U.S., is a little hard to take when one of the houses in question seeks to delegitimize Israel while the other merely seeks to defend it. Nonetheless, many of the scholars in question, including Cary Nelson, Sharon Ann Musher, and Kenneth Waltzer have been tireless, courageous, and effective opponents of BDS and champions of the principles that ought to animate our colleges and universities. I do not see a path to victory against BDS in higher education that does not involve an alliance with them.

Alliance does not imply agreement about everything, and we can look forward to debating such allies about how best to pursue peace. We will have plenty of time to do so, since our BDS opponents have no interest in debating. Two weeks ago, Jacobson, who will be at Vassar on Monday, issued a challenge to 39 professors there, who have signed a letter in favor of an academic boycott of Israel. Would any of them be willing to debate him publicly?

Not one of those professors, who work for a college whose mission statement speaks of “respectful debate,” took him up on it.

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