Today in Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu received a document called the Levy Report. Among other things, the report contends that Israel's presence in the West Bank does not qualify as military occupation. Michael Koplow blogs here about the report and the critical domestic implications it has for the Likud party and Israel's future. In the wake of the report, Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to carefully politically maneuver to prevent losing the support of the center, especially in the wake of issues such as Haredi military service.
But in the United States, the report brings to the surface a larger problem: the refusal of the pro-Israel community to recognize Israel's military presence in the West Bank as an occupation.
Consistently, pro-Israel organizations in the United States including MythsAndFacts.org, CAMERA, Jewish Federations of North America, HonestReporting.com, UnitedWithIsrael.org promote this idea. While debate in Israel is characteristically spirited over today's report, the U.S. pro-Israel community continues to underserve Israel by refusing to seriously engage this issue in an honest way.
For the good of the state and the pro-Israel community in the United States, this situation needs to change. The pro-Israel community in the United States is failing to seriously engage legitimate concerns about the treatment of Palestinians when it will not even accept that the IDF's actions constitute "occupation." It needs to stop pretending that by not talking about the occupation it will go away. Doing so is hurting the community's credibility. And it is hurting Israel.
Everyone in the pro-Israel community seems to recognize that the general failure of hasbara is bad for Israel. Yet when it comes to making actual changes to hasbara, we refuse on the basis that any change would appear to be a "concession" to pro-Palestinian movements. The pro-Israel community in the United States is mistaken in thinking that not changing its rhetoric after 45 years is a sign of strength. We focus instead on soft topics like tree-planting and camel-riding in Israel rather than taking seriously the concerns of a generation raised to have concern for human rights. We talk about other countries' occupations such as Turkey in Northern Cyprus, and Syria's former occupation of Lebanon. Anything and everything to avoid addressing the one issue on which people are actually making decisions about whether or not to support Israel. As a result, Israel loses credibility and potential supporters.
Simply using the term occupation does not have to mean that Israel would withdraw tomorrow from the West Bank. It would not have to mean Jewish abandonment of holy sites with great importance to the religion. It would not have to mean conceding a right of return which would threaten Israel's basic nature as a Jewish democratic state. However, it would mean correcting the pro-Israel narrative to align with the basic reality of power in the West Bank. It would inject complexity into a narrative which must compete in the complex media environment of the 21st century. Most importantly, it would cause moderate audiences to reconsider their lack of engagement with Israel by taking seriously their concerns about Palestinians rather than emailing around pictures of them in grocery stores in the Gaza Strip.
Most importantly, recognizing the basic fact of occupation would prompt serious thinking about the complex and dangerous challenges Israel faces in the years ahead. There is universal understanding that the status quo in the West Bank is unsustainable. Assessing accurately that status quo is the first step to creating a pro-Israel hasbara strategy that allows the state to achieve its full potential as a Jewish and democratic state.