Why the Israel Lobby Needs to Lobby Israel

AP Photo/Jim Young, Pool

"Israel lobby" is a term that could have two meanings, if you think about it. In standard Washington usage, it refers to American groups—often but not always Jewish—that lobby the U.S. Congress and White House on behalf of Israel, or rather on behalf of policies that those groups think are good for Israel. But there's another possible meaning, as John Kerry implied in a speech to the American Jewish Committee on Monday: Americans, especially Jews, lobbying the Israeli government.

This already happens. Recently American Jews have publicly pushed for changes in Israeli policy on two issues. In both cases, though, they were arguing about deck chairs on the Titanic: how much they cost, and who gets to sit in them. Speaking to the AJC's Global Forum, the secretary of state warned that the ship is sailing into an iceberg. His listeners, he said, should urge, beg, nudge, and badger the captain and crew to change course.

Here's one example of reverse Israel lobbying: Last month, the Israeli cabinet was about to vote on the national budget. One item would have eliminated an exemption from Value Added Tax for tourists. That is, a foreigner would have to pay tax on her hotel room or car rental, just like an Israeli. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone, and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister, asking to keep the loophole. Making tourists pay VAT, Stone and Hoenlein wrote, could "cause many to reconsider, postpone, or even cancel trips to Israel." It would raise the cost of Birthright, the program that gives free trips to Israel to 40,000 Jewish young adults annually, and of "missions," visits by delegations of U.S. Jewish organizations, they said.

The cabinet decided to keep the exemption. To be fair, the local tourism industry also pressured politicians. On the other hand, public outcry did not keep the cabinet from slashing support for poor and middle-class families. The precise impact of the request from the Presidents Conference is unknown. But Stone and Hoenlein certainly didn't refrain from lobbying the Israeli government when it affected their pockets.

U.S. Jews are also lobbying Israel about the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's Old City. For two decades, a religious feminist group called Women of the Wall has tried to hold services at the Wall and perform rituals that Orthodox Judaism traditionally limits to men. However, the state has assigned management of the site to Orthodox rabbis—and not from the side of Orthodoxy that has any interest in feminism. Along with all the other conflicts over holy places in the Old City, the issue has simmered for years.

Then, Women of the Wall got a surge of media coverage in America. Over the past few months, leaders of the Reform and Conservative denominations and of other American Jewish groups have pressed the Israeli government to change the rules at the Wall. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League—like the Presidents Conference and the AJC, a high-profile group known better for deflecting criticism of Israel—raised the issue in a personal meeting with Netanyahu. The lobbying led Netanyahu to assign a political ally, Natan Sharansky, to find a solution. Sharansky proposed expanding the prayer area and giving part to non-Orthodox groups.

If the Women of the Wall roused more rage in America than in their home town, it's partly because American Jews tend to be more sentimentally intense about the Wall, more mythically aroused, than most Israeli Jews. When people regard ground as sacred, every incident there is magnified.  For many American Jews, not letting the Women of the Wall pray at that place shouts government disdain for non-Orthodox Judaism, in other words, most of American Judaism. Put differently, the democratic Jewish state is symbolically disrespecting both American Jews and religious freedom.

This complaint, though, will be quite irrelevant if Israel ceases to be a Jewish state or if it writes off democracy. Which brings us back to Kerry's warning.

Since President Barack Obama's visit to Israel in March, Kerry has been a constant traveler in the Middle East, trying to get Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to sit down and negotiate a two-state agreement. Originally Obama and Kerry allotted eight weeks for success, with the implication that this is enough time for the sides to show whether they're serious. Kerry has bent the deadline a bit, and is waiting for answers from Jerusalem and Ramallah. Conventional wisdom says that each side's strategy is to insure that Washington blames the other for failure. Much of the Israeli ruling coalition, presumably including Netanyahu, believes that the status quo is preferable to concessions. "Naïve" is one of the nicer words that pundits, especially in Israel, have used for Kerry.  

But as Kerry correctly told his audience on Monday, "We're running out of time" and "if we don't succeed now, we may not get another chance." The chances for a two-state agreement will shrink drastically if Obama's initiative fails. In the long term, either Israeli democracy will vanish into the colonial morass of the occupation, or the Jewish state will vanish into a single entity between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Kerry was too delicate, though, when he said that "a realistic one-state solution does not exist." In a crescent stretching from Basra to Beirut, there are territories marked on the map as countries, where antagonistic communities were forced to share governments. At the moment, the experiment does not look successful.

More immediately, the end of Kerry's effort will be a signal to Netanyahu to accelerate settlement building, and to Abbas to turn to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to isolate Israel. If anything stops Abbas, it will be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. With it will go the Palestinian security forces that are now helping to prevent terror attacks in Israel. The status quo, as Kerry warned, "will not be static tomorrow."

So the secretary of state asked his listeners to "send a message" to Jerusalem rather than Washington this time: Sit down at the table now. Make peace, not excuses.

How much influence can Jewish organizations in the United States have on Netanyahu's decisions? No one knows. But a message from the AJC or the Presidents Conference that there's a limit to the Israeli behavior they can explain in America might have shock value. Kerry's request may be the proof that he's naïve, but ignoring his warning is much more naïve. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns violent again, hotel rooms will be empty in Jerusalem regardless of whether the price includes VAT, and who prays how at the Western Wall will not seem very significant. The Israel lobby should be lobbying Israel about the issue that matters most.

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