The Central Fallacy of the Pro-Israel Left

I attended a presentation today at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference by, among others, Ari Shavit, a senior correspondent for Israel’s left-wing daily, Ha’aretz. Shavit made a number of interesting points about the peace process, including that the core of the conflict is the rejection of Jewish self-determination by the Palestinians (and, he says, vice versa)–not the settlements, which he happens to oppose.

Shavit said that if the current peace process fails, he would favor a “slow” unilateral withdrawal, one in which Israel pulls out of the West Bank piece-by-piece, and other Arab states–Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis–move in to help Palestinians build their institutions. The alternative, he said, would be a one-state solution in which Israel held the territory. He called that the “worst of them all…one of the most appalling, tempting ideas I know.”

In defending that view–against questions from several members of the audience, who disagreed vehemently with him–Shavit did not resort to the demographic argument, which is the one favored by President Barack Obama (and, evidently, interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg). Instead, he said that an Israel with more Arabs would be a Syria waiting to happen–if Alawites and Sunnis cannot live together, imagine Jews and Palestinians, he said.

The essence of Caroline Glick’s argument for the extension of Israel law across Judea and Samaria (i.e. the West Bank) is that Israel would not become another Syria. She argues that the integration of some Palestinians into Israel around Jerusalem after 1967, and the relatively peaceful nature of Israeli Arab communities even though many are hostile to Jewish sovereignty, as reasons that a one-state plan would be safer than the two-state one.

I think the issue is open to debate. What really stood out about Shavit’s remarks, however, was his insistence that Israel needed to maintain the “moral high ground” in order to maintain national security. The settlements, he said, were a problem primarily because they weakened Israel’s international standing. He even claimed that Israel’s past military setbacks were the result of failing to seize the moral high ground by offering concessions.

Several counterexamples stand out–most recently, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in which Israel had only recently won global acclaim for the Gaza disengagement, only to suffer the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit by Hamas near Gaza and the abduction and murder of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hezbollah inside Israel’s northern border. The war that followed led to an indecisive result, with little international support for Israel.

That does not seem to matter to Shavit, who brings up several debatable examples of moments when Israel did not seize opportunities for peace, and claims they led to Israel assuming an imperfect moral posture on the eve of conflict: 1972, 1981, 1986, to name just a few. It is necessary, he said, for Israel to turn over every stone in its search for peace: “We are not proving to the world that we are serious about peace,” he exclaimed passionately.

There is a double standard here, of course: only Israel is expected to be morally perfect. Shavit would probably acknowledge that double standard, but insist that it is a geopolitical reality. He told the audience at AIPAC that the one thing Palestinians can give Israel is “legitimacy.” It is the one thing that Israel lacks, he says–even if only because the Palestinians and the Arab world have denied recognition to the Jewish state for so long.

I think the unfolding events in Ukraine–and the world’s effective non-response to Russia’s illegitimate, illegal invasion–offer an object lesson in the limits of “legitimacy” in international affairs. There are many things that are “legitimate” that are nonetheless wrong, and there are many things that are illegitimate that are ratified because there is no will or courage to change them. The lesson: security cannot be sacrificed for legitimacy.

The beginning of the solution to Israel’s problem is for Israelis–and friends of Israel–to stop treating questions about Israel’s legitimacy as if they are actually legitimate. No matter what model Israel pursues–the two-state solution, a one-state plan, or some kind of unilateral withdrawal–if it does so in the belief that holding the “moral high ground” is more important than actually holding physical high ground, it will be likely to fail.