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Jewish Journal

Checks and Balances

by Rob Eshman

May 16, 2002 | 8:00 pm

I'm feeling a little used this week. Not have-to-take-a-shower used, but more like three-card-monte used.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Los Angeles two weeks ago and, in the name of Jewish unity, urged and inspired L.A. Jews to support Israel in this time of crisis.

He then returned to Israel and, in a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, forced through a party vote rejecting a Palestinian state. He did this over the objections of the party leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, knowing the kind of dissension and disunity it would create in Israel and abroad.

Part of Netanyahu's standing in the media comes from his frequent TV appearances. But much of it also derives from his ability to excite and inspire Diaspora Jews, as he did here May 5. In other words, Netanyahu draws big crowds in the name of Jewish unity -- and who among us doesn't support that? But then he trades on the cache that draw gives him to advance his own political agenda back home -- and plenty among us don't support that.

There is a disconnect here. Jewish leaders tear their hair out wondering how they can get more Jews to help Israel, to attend rallies, to contribute money. One way not to do it is to make us feel like we're chumps, welcoming and applauding a man one week whose actions make us cringe a week later. Had Netanyahu delivered the same speech in English to us that he gave in Hebrew to his fellow Likudniks, his reception here may have been much cooler. In a town full of players, no one likes to be played.

Netanyahu's facility at PR (Public Relations) on Israel's behalf is only matched by his capacity for PR (Political Rapaciousness). Even Sharon was caught off guard by Netanyahu's sweep right. How could his fellow Likudniks trust a man who once ran for office on just as hard a line, then, once elected, returned Hebron to the Palestinians and shook Yasser Arafat's hand?

Of course, there are many in this community who agree with Netanyahu. This week I met with Morton Klein, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, who held a series of well-attended parlor meetings in the sumptuous home of a Brentwood benefactor. Klein told his audiences that Sharon was wrong. "Why are we endorsing the evolution of a terrorist state?" he asked.

If Israel won't commit to a Palestinian state, I asked Klein, and if it doesn't want to create an apartheid-like occupation among millions of Palestinians, then what? I'd ask Netanyahu the same thing. "I don't have to talk about a solution because there is no solution," Klein said.

In many ways, Klein's (and Netanyahu's) analysis of Palestinian treachery is dead-on. But if his only solution is what one Israeli defense analyst called The Hundred Years War, the great majority of Israelis, American Jews and Americans want no part of it.

The day after the Netanyahu coup, I sat down with Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister. Melchior, a member of government from the religious party Meimad, was in Los Angeles to speak at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue Monday evening. To rally behind Israel today, he said, Jews need to "understand the dilemmas we're going through and identify with them."

One of those dilemmas is how to make peace without a partner. Another is how, in the absence of peace, to occupy hostile territory in the most ethical possible way. Another is how to make difficult and dangerous compromises.

Melchior was asking us to go beyond easy slogans and rousing speeches, to give from our hearts without abandoning our heads. "This is the time to stand up for the Jewish people," Melchior said. "But showing the flag doesn't mean we have to agree. It might be bad for PR, but it's good for democracy."

I sent my check to the Jews in Crisis fund, not just because Israel needs our help, but also because there is someone in Israel like Melchior -- balancing Netanyahu's crippling actions with a better and more fruitful vision.

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