As a lobbyist I spend a lot of time speaking to people. And the recent chorus of my friends, acquaintances and the occasional barman leaning over the counter was the same: “Alex, seriously, why does Israel think that this is a good idea, and how can you possibly defend it?”
The people asking this are not “loonie leftie” Israel haters, or boycott supporters. In fact the overwhelming majority were pro-Israel, even if they don’t shout it from the rooftops. And that was the scariest bit. When those who usually side with you pull you to one side and say, “look, this is a bridge too far,” you better sit up, listen and act.
nd it got me wondering if there is simply nobody around to rein in the Israeli government and say people, this is nakedly hostile, unnecessary and wrong? I am of course talking about the recent Israeli legislation that gives a green light for Israel to appropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank by paying for it, regardless of whether it is for sale or not.
Everyone here in EU institutions, restaurants, bars and newspaper shops can see it for what it is. And even in Israel the prime minister didn’t even vote for it, or seek to properly explain it.
This week I spoke to a group of students from the Hebrew University. The represented a broad range of Israeli society, some religious, some not, some pro-settler, some not. I got a very strong impression that the majority just want the Israeli supreme court to rule it out so that we can all get back to normal.
But as I explained to them, it’s not that easy. When things like this happen, it undoes so much of our good work in presenting Israel in the best possible light in the EU institutions. We build beautiful political structures around high tech, Israeli medicinal advances, environmental wonders, agricultural genius, cybersecurity miracles etc., etc. in short we show the EU the Israel that we love, the Israel that we want the world to see, the one that makes us puff out our chests with pride.
But then a big self-inflicted political tremor like this law just comes and shakes the whole edifice to smithereens, meaning we have to spend a long time rebuilding.
And do you know what the most frustrating thing is? Yesterday, we saw Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s motorcade roll into Brussels, having come from Paris, with another few stops scheduled after dropping past the EU capital. He got to put his side of the story, unhindered, unchallenged to a receptive audience.
We didn’t see a single Israeli politician in Brussels this week. So we lost. Again. By default . Or sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the Israeli government.
Things don’t have to be this way.
“I believe that if Israel were to put an end to the settlements in the West Bank tomorrow, as it did in Gaza, there would still be reluctance on the part of the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish secular democracy,” wrote Alan Dershowitz.
Dershowitz is right. The settlements are an excuse of the PA for inaction and continued incitement. Anybody with half a brain knows that Ariel Sharon’s ballsy Gaza pull-out in 2005 was ample proof that the problem of getting the Palestinians engaged in a peace process run much deeper than housing developments past the 1967 borders.
But for the EU the settlement issue has become “the” principal impediment to peace.
Whether we like it or not, these are the rules of the game here. We try to push back against them, we try to get the focus elsewhere, but this is one enormous, stubborn political boulder that can’t be shifted for now. But it could be, relatively easily.
We need high-ranking Israeli representation in Brussels to properly articulate the issue. To explain it properly, warts and all. To show the EU institutions the erroneousness of the PA position. That settlements are an excuse and absolutely not the main obstacle to peace.
That’s why throwing the Knesset law into the political debate makes US President Donald Trump’s visa ban look like a supremely well-oiled bit of political maneuvering.
How did we get here? There was a time when Israel’s leaders and politicians looked outward and sought to show the best of Israel, a country that makes us and our supporters proud. The late great Shimon Peres was a great advocate of this approach, and possibly the best lobbyist that Israel could ask for.
Is this law – that will almost certainly be quashed by the Supreme Court anyway – really the best we can do? I’ll leave any Israeli politicians reading this with a quote from Leo Tolstoy to ponder: “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
Can we get back to being right again? No more tremors please. We got some serious rebuilding to do. And we need your help to do it.
Alex Benjamin is director of Europe Israel Public Affairs, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin.