What price good will for Israel?

How much attention should Jerusalem pay to international or Diaspora opinion when weighing its options on security or the peace process?

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces as Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian house in the village of Walajeh, near Bethlehem on Sept. 3, 2018. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces as Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian house in the village of Walajeh, near Bethlehem on Sept. 3, 2018. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The recent spate of terrorist attacks against Israelis for which Hamas claimed credit launched a debate about what the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should do in order to deter more violence. The murder of two Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, as well as the shooting at a bus stop in the West Bank that left several Jews wounded and led to the death of an infant delivered prematurely after his mother was shot in the abdomen put the prime minister on the spot.

Netanyahu knew that he had to do something to assuage the anger of his constituents, especially West Bank settlers, who are the most inviting and vulnerable target for terrorists. Some demanded the government to retaliate against Hamas with attacks on its assets in Gaza. Others want it put more pressure on the Palestinian Authority to cease subsidizing the violence by granting salaries and pensions to terrorists. But within the prime minister’s coalition there was also backing for granting official recognition to unauthorized West Bank settler outposts, in addition to deporting the families of terrorists from their home villages and cities to other parts of the West Bank.

In the end, Netanyahu chose to let the Knesset pass preliminary votes on the latter two suggestions with the ideas of deporting terrorist families passing by a 69-37 vote and the authorization of the outposts getting through by a 61-47 margin.

It remains to be seen whether either will ever receive final approval. Reportedly, the Israeli army, the intelligence establishment and the attorney general were all opposed to these proposals. In particular, the deportation idea seemed to be of limited utility. But the real issue with the idea of authorizing outposts or any of these ideas is whether they cause more trouble than they’re worth.

As long as the political culture of the Palestinians venerates acts of terror—with the P.A. ready to compensate them for their losses—there doesn’t appear to be any foolproof way of deterring such crimes except by the measures already in place, which seek to make it hard for terrorists to get close to Jewish population centers. This means that these proposals are more a matter of appeasing the understandable anger of Israelis than any real advantage gained for the country’s security.

However, there’s another consideration to take into account.

Will Israel’s counter-measures harm its standing in international opinion or among American Jews? That’s especially relevant when relations between Israel and the Diaspora appear to be at a low point, with leading U.S. Jewish groups, including long-established Jewish Federations, complaining that Netanyahu doesn’t seem to care about their opinions or sensibilities.

The argument in favor of Israel holding back on retaliatory measures or doing something like freezing building in West Bank settlements is that taking such actions would both relieve international pressure on Jerusalem and make it easier for American Jews to feel good about supporting the Jewish state. Young Jews in particular have grown up thinking of Israel as the heavy-handed bully abusing Palestinian victims.

According to many of its foreign friends, if Israel were to refrain from blowing up the homes of terrorists’ families or if it would freeze settlements rather than authorizing outposts, it would supposedly prove to the world that Israel really does want peace. They argue that doing the opposite fuels the narrative that Netanyahu is a heartless hard-liner bent on oppressing the Palestinians and dooming any chance for a resolution of the conflict. That not only isolates Israel in international forums, but also widens the already growing gap between Israel and the Diaspora.

The problem with such arguments is that it’s not clear that doing what the international community or even liberal American Jews wants increases support for Israel, let alone makes peace more likely. After all, Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinians statehood in deals that would have called for the removal of settlements. The Palestinian refusals of these offers didn’t seem to hurt their international standing and Israel’s sacrifices (including the removal of every soldier, settler and settlement from Gaza in order to make way for what turned out to be a terrorist state) didn’t win it any popularity contests.

Nor did settlement freezes tried in the past do much to entice the Palestinians to be reasonable or make the world appreciate Israel. To the contrary, the dynamic of the peace process is that the more accommodating Israel has been, the more the world—and many Diaspora Jews—consider it to be a thief divesting itself of stolen property, rather than a legitimate claimant seeking a reasonable compromise.

Israelis aren’t mistaken when they dismiss American Jewish complaints about security measures or demands for them to make unilateral concessions as not only wrong-headed, but also Olympic-level chutzpah. And their impatience with the risible notion that unilateral concessions that will undermine security will win them friends in Europe is equally understandable.

But to acknowledge this is not to say that Netanyahu should ignore world opinion, or especially, the sentiments of Israel’s Diaspora partners. As much as most American Jews don’t know what they’re talking about with respect to the conflict, the idea that Israelis should completely ignore their sensibilities or opinions remains foolish. Both sides of that relationship need each other, and no Israeli leader should ever think that he or she could afford to give up on American Jews. The costs of doing so for the future of the Jewish people are just too high for Netanyahu to stop acting as if he doesn’t care about them or what they think.

Nevertheless, some things are more important than international good will. There are times when Israel’s security needs are at stake, and its government must act against its enemies—no matter world opinion. But to discard those interests for the sake of meaningless and counterproductive measures that won’t save any lives makes no sense. We can only hope that Netanyahu continues to show that he knows the difference.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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