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Israelis have some serious decisions to make

April 3, 2019 at 12:49 pm

A protest in support for Palestine at Times Square in New York, US on 20th May 2018 [Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency]

Most Israelis see themselves as having a major decision to make on 9 April. Looking at Israel as an American Christian, I think the decision has two aspects: who will govern Israel following the General Election, and how will this determine Israel’s future direction vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Americans in general, and America’s Christians interested in Israel in particular, will be more influenced by the future direction of Israeli politics and policies than by the outcome of the election.

The Middle East is seeing many decisions for change: the Pope has made a historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula and said mass in the United Arab Emirates; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an official visit to Oman, without the previously anticipated backlash; and the US President is pulling ground troops out of Syria. Some choose to continue down the same roads as in the past, but that too is a decision.

The organisation I lead, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), has long been a friend to Israelis. We are also a friend to Palestinians, and others seeking peace in the Middle East. As such, we have been very critical of Israel’s occupation policies. We have also been critical of Hamas terrorism and the Palestinian Authority’s withholding of resources from its own people. And we have long criticised anti-Semitism here in the US. There is a significant power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians. While there are legitimate grievances on both sides, the abuse of power in the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people must be acknowledged and brought to an end.

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Americans, like Israelis, are coming to a crossroads. Most Americans have long supported Israel, while at the same time opposing some Israeli policies. Also like Israelis, for several decades Americans have thought their policy arguments with each other needed to stop at the water’s edge. The US had a consistent (if occasionally horrendous) foreign affairs outlook and policy. However, this standpoint is ending. Israel’s policies are becoming a bone of contention among Americans, as evidenced on Capitol Hill in response to the controversial statements made by Representative Ilhan Omar.

Minnesota Democratic Congressional-elect Ilhan Omar speaks at an election night results party on November 6, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Minnesota Democratic Congressional-elect Ilhan Omar speaks at an election night results party on 6 November 2018 in Minnesota, US [Stephen Maturen/Getty Images]

There are many reasons for this contentiousness, among them Netanyahu’s efforts to take sides in US partisan politics. A more important reason is that Americans are taking a fresh look at where things are going. Not only are some up and coming American politicians openly hostile to Israel’s occupation policies, but far more are also beginning to ask whether the US should make sacrifices to its own principles in order to support that occupation. Whole Christian denominations, historically friendly to Israel, are looking at whether to disinvest in the occupation. Some already have.

The big decision for Israelis after 9 April is that second one that they will consider; whether to continue down the present road or change direction. The occupation is 51 years old. Do Israelis want their grandchildren to keep doing occupation military service in the West Bank? Do they think it is healthy for them and produces the society that Israelis want for their future? Will keeping up the blockade on Gaza, which Israel started well before Hamas came to power there, make security better for Israelis in the future? Or would it be better to change course, to build instead of destroy, to strengthen instead of oppress?

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Of course, the second decision Israelis will make after the election has consequences for Israel, but it also has consequences for its future with Americans. Do Israelis prefer a future where they subjugate Palestinians and divide Americans into pro- and anti-Israel camps? The US is a democracy, imperfect often, but power in the US does reliably swing from one side eventually to the other. Does it help Israel to get more Americans to take sides for and against? Does it help to make Israel a partisan issue in the US?

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Opposition to the occupation among Americans, in general, is growing, paradoxically as opposition to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and other ways of expressing anti-occupation views are also increasing. The anti-occupation view is not opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. Indeed most Americans — whether Christian, Jewish or of other faiths — support two viable and secure states, Israel and Palestine, but see this as a diminishing possibility because of current settlement expansion and one-sided US policies. The opposition to BDS has many strands, too.

Choosing which way to go to the future will be hard for Israelis. They have most of the power and a strong aversion to being seen as the ones who give without gaining. The only way for Israelis to truly achieve and secure a stable future for their state is to protect and ensure the same rights for their Palestinian neighbours. Israel will not benefit by dividing Americans.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.