First, let’s establish that what Israel did by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden was dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It was dumb because it shifted the focus of the United States and Israel from the most immediate existential threat Israel and the entire Middle East face — Iran — to one of lesser importance, the settlements.
“If Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and American support is needed to enable a military attack by Israel on Iran, for the United States to attack Iran itself or to effect serious, crippling sanctions on Iran,” historian Michael Berenbaum wrote at jewishjournal.com last week, “then it would stand to reason that the government of Israel would go out of its way to make sure that Vice President Joseph Biden, historically a strong supporter of Israel, would have a successful stay in Jerusalem. ... Only a fool or someone with nothing to worry about would alienate him.”
But even start-up nations can sometimes foul up, and Israel did, wittingly or unwittingly.
What fascinates me in this nearly two-week-old story is not how the United States or Israel reacted, but how American Jewry behaved: like teenagers.
Mom and Dad got in a fight, and organized American Jewry copped an attitude. Actually, it copped three distinct attitudes.
The first was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Just after the Obama administration publicly chided Israel, AIPAC issued a statement taking on the administration, rather than Israel, for its reaction. AIPAC called the U.S. criticism, “a matter of serious concern” and basically ordered the president, “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state.”
I’m sure AIPAC, which holds its national policy conference in Washington next week, had only the best of intentions. But to American ears, the statement sounded utterly presumptuous, like an entitled teen. After all, it was Israel that embarrassed the American vice president.
I predict that AIPAC statement will now start turning up as a pull quote on every far right, far left, anti-Semitic, jihadi, anti-Israel and conspiracy theory pamphlet and Web site. It was pure, unadulterated teenage chutzpah, to the tune of: “Hey, back off. And that $3 billion you gave me last year? Well, what have you done for me lately?”
The second set of teenagers were J Street and points left, running to take sides, hissing, “I told you so,” then stomping out and slamming the door. It is true that Israel’s post-separation wall, laissez-faire attitude toward demographic doom may spell the end of the Jewish state. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows how to count Jews and Arabs as well as you do, and it’s not like the Palestinians are parading through Gaza and Ramallah with olive branches. Before you join the public whupping, remember that Mahmoud Abbas is now the second Palestinian leader to refuse a far-reaching, conflict-ending settlement with Israel. Taking sides and pointing fingers will only embolden Palestinians to hold out for even more and kick the reckoning day forever forward.
“The U.S. must never create a situation in which Israel sees itself as being abandoned, because it encourages belligerence on the other side and inflexibility on the Israeli side,” Yehuda Avner, a former advisor to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, told The Jerusalem Post. “If the U.S. wishes to advance a peace process, it must never paint Israel into a corner as it did by calling Ramat Shlomo a settlement. What’s needed now on all sides is constructive ambiguity.”
The third teenager was the knee-jerk pro-Israel camp. These are the teens who can look a seething parent right in the eyes and say, with a straight face, “What’d I do?”
I’ve been reading their editorials and press releases for days now: pointing fingers at the Palestinians — “Why are you mad at me? Look at them!” — coming up with lists of reasons why Israel can build those 1,600 units right now, explaining how Obama knew all along, Rahm Emanuel set us up, it’s all just a ruse, Obama hates us anyway, blah, blah, blah. Anyone who’s got a teenager, who was a teenager or who has seen an episode of “Gilmore Girls” knows the drill: deflect, deflect, deflect. Who, me?
This crowd learned all the wrong lessons from Israel’s successful bombing of a secret Syrian weapons site in 2007. The success there wasn’t so much a demonstration of Israel’s prowess as of Syria’s loss of its protector, the Soviet Union. Without a superpower firmly behind it, Israel is not the shark in the shark tank; it’s the herring.
That’s the broad, unimpressive range of reaction of organized American Jewry: surly, presumptuous, diffident. In hindsight, the right reaction would have been this: Israel screwed up. It needs to apologize, to hear the U.S. concerns and to wait until things cool down to press its own points.
That would have been the wise path, but too many leading Jewish groups took the foolish, wicked or simple one. Isn’t it time we grow up?