Jewish institutions are under siege these days, and their principal critics aren’t neo-Nazis. Despite the clear leftward tilt of most organized Jewish life, liberal critics are constantly telling us that mainstream groups like AIPAC and federations are toadies of an Israeli government that is pursuing policies that American Jews abhor. The ferment on the left runs from tame—and largely irrelevant—liberal Zionist groups like J Street to more extreme opponents like IfNotNow and the virulently anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, which also dabbles in anti-Semitic libels as well as support for boycotts of Israel.
The critics and the naysayers have the ear of many Jews. The reason for this has more to do with the demographic collapse and decline of a sense of Jewish peoplehood among the non-Orthodox denominations that make up about 90 percent of American Jews, than it does with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shortcomings. But it’s also true that the majority of the non-Orthodox Jewish community has little sympathy with the Israeli government’s positions on the peace process.
The notion promoted by President Barack Obama that Israel needs to be saved from itself still resonates among the majority of Jews who voted for him. This view holds that Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank is the prime obstacle to peace as well as the future of the Jewish state. But while this liberal consensus deems Netanyahu a problem, its proponents rarely stop to ask why he was elected prime minister four times, including winning the last three elections in a row.
The answer is simple. There exists a broad consensus within Israeli society that contradicts the assumptions held by most American Jews. The majority of Netanyahu’s compatriots see his policies as the only possible response to a Palestinian political culture that still refuses to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn. Moreover, that Israeli consensus isn’t merely upheld by Netanyahu and his allies; his rivals on the center and the left also embrace it.
The latest example of this fact came this week from new Zionist Union party leader Avi Gabbay. The Zionist Union is a coalition of parties that includes Labor, which was once the dominant faction in Israeli politics and the embodiment of the center-left ethos American Jews tend to identify as representative of the Israel they’d like to support.
The Zionist Union is the largest opposition party in the Knesset, and its poll numbers have been on the rise since Gabbay beat former leader Isaac Herzog in a primary earlier this year. Along with the centrist Yesh Atid party’s Yair Lapid, he’s the man who would most likely replace Netanyahu in the next election—assuming Netanyahu survives corruption probes and is able to run again.
But on the issue that, other than religious pluralism, most discredits Netanyahu in American Jewish eyes, Gabbay offers nothing very different from the prime minister’s stands. This week, Gabbay said he wouldn’t uproot any settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. If peace does become possible, he thinks the settlements should remain in place. That’s exactly what Netanyahu—who likens the desire of the Palestinians and their foreign supporters to destroy Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria to ethnic cleansing—also believes.
Earlier in the year, both Lapid and Herzog, Gabby’s predecessor, also made it clear neither of them saw real peace as a possibility for the foreseeable future. Herzog thought it would take 10 years for the Palestinians to demonstrate they had sufficiently altered the political culture to make peace with a Jewish state possible. Lapid said it would take 20 years. That’s in line with Netanyahu’s belief that while peace and even withdrawal from some territory might someday be necessary, any such move must await a sea change in Palestinian society that would reject violence and delegitimization of Zionism.
There are some voices on the left saying Lapid and Gabbay are just posturing to gain support from centrist voters and would, in fact, pursue very different policies involving withdrawal from the territories if they were elected. They may be right about that. But if so, that merely shows both men understand how most Israelis still see more withdrawals unaccompanied by genuine change among Palestinians as not so much misguided as insane.
But Gabbay’s posturing also poses a more important question for liberal Americans. What do you think you know about the conflict that Israelis don’t know? It’s time for American Jews to show some humility and acknowledge that the answer is, not much.