With peace talks in crisis, Boston forum showcases diverse Israeli political landscape

Click photo to download. Caption: Six Israeli Members of Knesset on stage at the Ruderman Family Foundation's town hall forum at Northeastern University in Boston on April 1. From left to right: Nachman Shai (Labor), Itzik Shmuli (Labor), Shulamit Mualem Rephaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), Shimon Ohayon (Likud Beiteinu), Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid), and Michal Rozin (Meretz). Credit: Eric Haynes.

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

The U.S.-Israel relationship finds itself at a critical juncture as American Jewish opinions and passions swirl regarding the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which stand on the brink of collapse. Against that backdrop, six Israeli Members of Knesset (MK), each representing a slice of the diverse Israeli political landscape, had the chance to interact directly with the American Jewish community at a town hall forum in Boston on April 1.

“I believe the American Jewish community is vital to Israel’s security,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which prioritizes the issue of Israel-Diaspora relations and organized the town hall at Northeastern University.

“However, the [U.S.] Jewish community is changing and many Israeli leaders aren’t always aware of that. They don’t understand that this community is made of many different types of Jews who identify very differently,” Ruderman told JNS.org.

Along those lines, Ruderman called the April 1 event an opportunity for the MKs “to have a crash course on the American Jewish community.” At the forum, diverse sets of opinions—ranging from the political left to the right and the secular to the religious—interacted in a unique format, serving as a microcosm of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

MKs present included Nachman Shai (Labor), Itzik Shmuli (Labor), Shulamit Mualem Rephaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), Shimon Ohayon (Likud Beiteinu), Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid), and Michal Rozin (Meretz).

In introductions, each MK described his or her personal and political party’s stances, sometimes to the dismay of the moderator, who joked she was warned beforehand of Israelis’ strong opinions and tendency to speak at length.

With its town hall format, the event allowed for audience members to submit questions to the MKs. The questions touched on a number of sensitive themes confronting Israel and the American Jewish community, recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state,” making concessions for peace, territories located beyond the 1967 lines, and challenges faced by Israel’s economy.

As expected, profound differences emerged over these issues, with some MKs offering outside-the-box—albeit controversial—proposals. Regarding the debate on a two-state solution, Habayit Hayehudi’s Rephaeli, who said she lives in an “Israeli settlement” and “interacts with Arabs daily,” called for a one-state solution in which Israel would annex the West Bank and give Israeli citizenship to the Arabs living there.

“We are not occupiers, it’s our homeland,” Rephaeli declared.

“I am not afraid of demographics,” she said in reference to the high birth rates of Arabs.  

Meretz’s Rozin, meanwhile, firmly called the West Bank “occupied territories” and said remaining there is one of Israel’s worst mistakes.

Regarding whether or not Israel needs to be recognized as a Jewish state by the Palestinians, Yesh Atid’s Solomon argued that such recognition isn’t necessary because “we know who we are.”

Likud Beitenu’s Ohayon took a different stance, saying it is “very important right now for the Palestinians to accept that Israel is the Jewish homeland.”

Ohayon said there are “over 20 Arab countries that exist, where they share a common language, heritage and religion,” and therefore Israel must insist “on our justice” and the recognition of “one Jewish state.”

Outside the auditorium where the forum was held, several dozen members and supporters of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, which was recently banned by the university for intimidating Jewish students, protested the event. One sign read “Zionist criminals are not welcome here.” Yet the April 1 forum focused on reaffirming Zionism, especially among the younger sector of U.S. Jewry.

According to the Pew Research Center’s much-debated study that was released last October, young American Jews are more politically liberal and less religious than previous generations.

During the discussion, MK Shai explained that he was one of the first Israeli government officials to address the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street. While Shai said he disagreed with many of J Street’s positions, he believes it is important not to ignore groups like J Street that appeal to many young American Jews.

“All together in the world, we are only 13 million people, we cannot afford to lose the next generation of American Jews,” Shai said.

MK Rephaeli—whose party leader, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, has previously called on Israel to reduce its dependence on America—said that as someone who is a religious Jew, she believes it is important to form a partnership with all Jews, including the younger generation.

“I ask that all the Jews from all over the world, that we need to be a partnership, especially the younger Jews,” she said.

Shai elaborated on that topic in an interview with JNS.org after the forum, explaining that it is important for younger American Jews to not only see Israel as a military power, but also as a soft power that is becoming a world leader in science, technology, and health care.

“The younger generation [in America] should have a chance to listen to Israelis and to see Israel not only as a military power, but also as a soft power and a democracy. That is what I am trying to market,” he said.

Regarding the current U.S.-brokered peace talks, Shai said, “Right now we are in a very crucial stage with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu trying to extend the negotiations. However, [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas has not been too cooperative.”

One item that is dominating news headlines but was left out of the April 1 discussion was the status of imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, whose release has been floated as part of a possible deal to extend the peace talks from their initial April 29 deadline to 2015. Under that possible deal—which lost steam after Abbas signed applications for Palestinian Authority membership in 15 international agencies and treaties—Israel would have reportedly proceeded with the now-canceled release of 26 Palestinian terrorist prisoners, free hundreds of more non-terrorist prisoners, and partially frozen settlement construction. 

Shai, who serves as chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Jonathan Pollard’s Release, told JNS.org that he welcomed recent reports of Pollard’s possible release, despite the controversy over the terms of the deal.

“It is time to release him, he has served for over 25 years and has paid his debt to American society,” Shai said.

Jay Ruderman echoed Shai’s position, saying he thinks there is a “consensus in Israel, and also in America” that Pollard has served long enough.

Amid diverse opinions on the subject in both Israel and America—opinions that were on full display April 1—Shai said he believes a two-state solution, despite its flaws, remains in Israel’s best interest.

“I don’t really expect Israel to remain within the present border for generations to come,” he said. “It’s our first and main interest to separate ourselves from the Palestinians, because we would like to remain democratic and Jewish. If we keep this territory with millions of Arabs, the demography will finally defeat us.” 

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Posted on April 2, 2014 and filed under Israel, U.S., News.