The Truth About Israel
As a fellow Israeli born in the United States, I share many of Gershom Gorenberg’s perspectives ("Think Again: Israel," May/June 2008). However, I disagree with some of his analysis, in particular, his rather negative slant on the state of Israeli democracy. It’s true, as Gorenberg notes, that Israel’s national list-based electoral system and lack of ...
As a fellow Israeli born in the United States, I share many of Gershom Gorenberg's perspectives ("Think Again: Israel," May/June 2008). However, I disagree with some of his analysis, in particular, his rather negative slant on the state of Israeli democracy.
As a fellow Israeli born in the United States, I share many of Gershom Gorenberg’s perspectives ("Think Again: Israel," May/June 2008). However, I disagree with some of his analysis, in particular, his rather negative slant on the state of Israeli democracy.
It’s true, as Gorenberg notes, that Israel’s national list-based electoral system and lack of a constitution have both given the judiciary an overbearing role and denied to the body politic the direct accountability so precious to Americans and others enjoying district-based representation. Yet, as former Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky has pointed out, real democracy is less a function of the structural framework than the extent of freedom in a society. And using that yardstick — freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion; women’s rights; gay rights; and the like — there is no question that Israel is not only a "successful democracy" but is in fact one of the world’s freest societies.
That is not to suggest there aren’t challenges, or to deny that Israel’s minorities deserve better treatment. But the primary reason Arab parties in the Knesset are not invited to join governing coalitions is that they uniformly advocate policies antithetical to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. The fact that many Arab-Israeli lawmakers remain in the Knesset despite their vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric and arguably treasonous visits to countries still in a state of war with Israel, is itself a testimony to the strength — or naiveté — of Israel’s democracy. And the fact that there are no Jewish parties in any Arab or Muslim country speaks for itself.
Former advisor to Natan Sharansky
Gorenberg’s contention that a nuclear Iran would not pose a serious threat to Israel is based on pure assessment. Unfortunately, assessments can be mistaken — especially because, in the Iranian case, there is currently no solid basis or indications for assessing Iran’s future nuclear policy, given that Iran has denied any intention of developing nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, we cannot know to what extent Iran’s leaders will act as rational players. It is difficult to assess the intentions of fundamentalist leaders and to judge the role of ideological-religious motivations and the weight of risks and costs in their decision-making. Some observers think that Iran’s leaders are pragmatic, yet we lack enough evidence to believe them.
Contrary to Gorenberg’s claim, the Iranian decision to end the war with Iraq in 1988 is not an example of Iranian pragmatism. Iran agreed to stop the war not only because Iraq started to fire missiles on Tehran, but mostly because it could not continue the fighting. By mid-1988, Iranian forces were unable to contain Iraqi attacks, had no means to replenish the vast amounts of arms they had lost, and were on the verge of economic bankruptcy.
Finally, Iran has refused any dialogue or communication with Israel. If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, a lack of communication and miscalculation could easily lead to nuclear deterioration between the two countries, even if Iran does not intend to attack Israel.
Assessing Iran’s future nuclear policy is not an academic exercise. It is a crucial matter for Israel, one that Israeli leaders cannot afford to get wrong. As long as no mitigating factors have been established by solid evidence, Israel has no choice but to take the utmost caution in addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.
Institute for National Security Studies
Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv, Israel
I agree strongly with Gorenberg’s central point that Israel "is best understood as a real place, not a country of myth." I do take issue, however, with his categorical rejection of the notion that political forces — sometimes broadly called "the Israel lobby" — seriously skew U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East.
Gorenberg is right that no single organization "controls" U.S. policy when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. However, I expect he would share my deep concern over the impact that a confluence of forces — foreign-policy neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, and far-right Jewish leaders — have had in squashing debate on these issues in American politics, thereby limiting the maneuvering room available to U.S. foreign-policy makers. One need only spend time on Capitol Hill to hear members of Congress and their staff say one thing about Israel behind closed doors and then balk at saying the same thing in public.
Perhaps most salient is that in listening to the loudest voices from the margins, American politicians and policymakers are failing to respond to the actual opinions of American Jews. Studies show that as many as 87 percent of Jews in the United States would back a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that, not insignificantly, 64 percent of Israelis want their government to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.
The time has come for the Jewish community to dispel the most powerful myth that has held sway for too long: That the loudest voices lobbying Capitol Hill represent the views of the majority of American Jews.
Gershom Gorenberg replies:
I’m not sure that Aryeh Green is responding to the same article that I wrote. I did not criticize Israel’s list-based proportional electoral system, which in my view ensures wider representation of minority groups and minority views than does the United States’ flawed district system. I referred to an "activist" court, not an "overbearing" one. The Israeli Supreme Court’s defense of civil rights — including those Green lists — demonstrates just how positive judicial activism can be. However, a true democracy also requires full rights for minorities and political participation for all. To perfect its democracy, therefore, Israel must eliminate the endemic discrimination against its Arab citizens and end its rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the West Bank.
Ephraim Kam is right that Israel must act with caution in evaluating Iran’s nuclear policy. Unfortunately, the dominant tone in discussion of Iran in Israel and elsewhere has been panic, the enemy of caution. Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment, "It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany," typifies fearful rhetoric that could spur ill-considered responses. Such rhetoric ignores the significance of Israel’s own nuclear deterrent. There’s good reason to seek to prevent an Iranian bomb. But in evaluating the risk, neither Israel nor the United States should resort to the apocalyptic thinking that has dominated the debate.
On these pages and in previous articles, I have criticized the simplistic view that the "Israel lobby" controls U.S. policy in the Middle East. It’s true, though, that organizations and individuals promoting hawkish positions have claimed a monopoly on being "pro-Israel," to the detriment of Israeli and U.S. interests. A more open debate is essential. For that reason, the appearance of Jeremy Ben-Ami’s organization, J Street, is welcome and long overdue.
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