Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On "Defending" Israel During Pillar Of Defense

During Operation Pillar of Defense, the U.S. Jewish community was vocal in its defense of Israel.  Pro-Israel organizations released statements, held press conferences and rallies, and made media appearances in which they reiterated support for Israel.  In many cases, this support was not only for Israel as a State or Israelis as a people, but for specific policies of the Government of Israel.

When Israel announced Operation Pillar of Defense on November 14, 2012, the U.S. pro-Israel community expressed support for the operation.  "We stand with Israel as it fulfills its most basic responsibility as a democracy: defending the nation," stated the Jewish Federation of Atlanta on the first morning of the operation.  The David Project tweeted a similar response, specifically referencing the operation: "What would the US govt do if rockets were fired at its citizens?  Does Israel have other options than military force in the short or long run?"  StandWithUs retweeted the justification given by the Israel Defense Force Spokesperson: "135 rockets have been fired at Israel in the last 11 hours alone.  What would you do if you country was under attack?"  Such messages of support were intended to advance the legitimate goal of supporting Israeli public diplomacy with the American public.

On November 21st, Israel and Hamas implemented a joint cease-fire agreement.  In a press conference hours before the cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that "the right thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of the opportunity for a protracted cease-fire."  The Prime Minister's sentiments were echoed in subsequent statements by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The U.S. pro-Israel community, however, was skeptical of the Israeli government's decision.  "Sirens sounding in Sderot now. Ceasefire over. That lasted 18 minutes if you don't count Beer Sheva at 9 exactly," tweeted StandWithUs.  While statements about Israel's decision to open Operation Pillar of Defense framed it as an Israeli government decision, the U.S. pro-Israel community tended to frame the cease-fire agreement in more neutral terms.  While Israel "defended itself" with the military operation, a cease-fire agreement "took effect" according to the Jewish Federations of North America.  "Israel-Hamas ceasefire to take effect at 9pm - Do you think it will hold?" asked the David Project, linking to a Times of Israel piece which was similarly skeptical. The next day, the David Project asked "are you thankful the Israel-Hamas cease-fire is holding thus far?" to which a constituent responded "Yes.  You Guys?"  The David Project responded with a demure statement, "We are thankful and happy the rockets have stopped falling on Israel."

The point is not the pro-Israel organizations hate cease-fires.  On the contrary, most of the organizations reiterated their commitment to peace, and supported Israel's pursuit of peace.  The point is that the phrase "support for Israel" has a very particular meaning as the pro-Israel community deploys it.  Supporting Operation Pillar of Defense was supporting Israel.  Specifically supporting the government's decision to sign a cease-fire agreement was not.  Why?

The difference is not accounted for by the idea that pro-Israel activists are warmongers.  Rather, this difference is explained by the inward focus of the pro-Israel community.  Had the community been focused on engaging moderates outside the community, actively supporting a cease-fire agreement would have promoted Israel's (rightful) image as a peace-seeking society and would have given the Israeli government much-deserved credit for taking a long-term focus.  A previous post on this blog explains just how important and praiseworthy this decision was.  

But the pro-Israel community is focused on internal unity, not engaging those outside its ranks.  Many members of this community believe that unity underlies a "strong" defense of Israel, but the failure to exploit the cease-fire agreement for Israel's public relations benefit is a textbook example of how the focus on unity is setting back pro-Israel advocacy in the United States.  

To successfully defend Israel in the future, the pro-Israel community will need to do two things.  First, it must engage more outside its ranks than inside them.  Second, It will need to embrace the inherent diversity of pro-Israel opinion rather than fighting it (this goes for the pro-Israel left as well as the pro-Israel right).  Military operations are easy points of unity but they do not sell Israel to a public legitimately concerned about Palestinian human rights and innocent casualties. 

These changes are institutional and require deep introspection and changes.  But the state on behalf of whom these changes would be made is worth the time and effort of a strong defense.

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