Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Oct. 27, 2014. Netanyahu told parliament “the French build in Paris, the English build in London and the Israelis build in Jerusalem.”

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Oct. 27, 2014. Netanyahu told parliament “the French build in Paris, the English build in London and the Israelis build in Jerusalem.” Ariel Schalit/AP

Even Israel's Best Friends Understand That It's Disconnecting From Reality

An editorial in the leading American Jewish newspaper should be read by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a serious warning. By Jeffrey Goldberg

More proof, if more proof were needed, that there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, and that the crisis goes deeper than simply the dysfunctional personal relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu's government and the Obama Administration (or between their colorful staffs): A lead editorial in The New York Jewish Week, the flagship American Jewish newspaper, center to center-right in orientation, with many thousands of Orthodox Jews among its readers and an ardently pro-Israel editorial line, bluntly asks whether the Israeli government has become unmoored from reality.

The editorial, "Bibi Takes on the World," takes note of the recent snub by top American officials of the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon (a snub prompted by Ya'alon's earlier insults directed at Secretary of State John Kerry), and of the Netanyahu government's announcement that it would build more than 1,000 new housing units in parts of Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967—"fully aware," the editorial reads, "of the negative response it would receive in America and in the international community."

The editorial continues:

(T)he State Department (called) the plans “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” A European Union spokeswoman went further, asserting that the move “once again” calls into question Israel’s commitment “to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.” She also warned that “the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend” on Jerusalem’s “engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.”

Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel will “continue to build in our eternal capital,” adding: “I heard the claim that our building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem makes peace more distant, but it is the criticism itself that makes peace more distant.” He said the criticism feeds the Palestinians’ false hopes and is “detached from reality.”

And then The New York Jewish Week drops the hammer:

But it’s fair to ask just who is more detached from reality these days, the president of the U.S. and leader of the free world, or the leader of a small country almost totally dependent on American support? (It’s not so much the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid that counts as much as its support at the UN and in countless other ways that would be felt should the relationship continue to erode.)

When future historians write about this period in U.S.-Israel relations, this editorial will warrant serious mention. The unease felt by some American Jews about Israel's direction is moving into the mainstream. Over the past few months, I've spoken with lay leaders of many of the largest Jewish organizations (organizations that would very much prefer not to be affiliated with such left-wing outfits as J Street), and the question they ask is this: Just what is Bibi doing? If American Jews are forced to choose between their liberal values (and most American Jews are liberal) and support for a Jewish state that seems to be growing increasingly illiberal, these leaders say that Israel—and not the Democratic Party—will be the one to suffer.

The Israeli government doesn't seem to understand that the status quo is unsustainable. As I've written (over and over again), I am not arguing for an immediate pullout from the West Bank; the times are too dangerous, and the Palestinian Authority too weak and corrupt and cowardly, for such a move. But in the meantime, Israel could help create conditions so that a Palestinian state could one day be born. What this means is simple: Netanyahu should take no steps that further entangle Israel in the lives of Palestinians. It also means that Israel should try to negotiate in good faith with President Mahmoud Abbas, who is the best interlocutor Israel is going to have, despite his many obvious flaws. If nothing else, Netanyahu should call his bluff.

(Related: These Are All the Countries That Now Recognize Palestinian Statehood)

It also means understanding that while most settlement expansion that is now taking place in the West Bank is happening in areas that will most likely come under Israeli control in the event of a final peace deal, the Palestinians haven't agreed to this division yet. Unilateral moves do not help. They certainly don't help Israel's international standing, which is lower than it has ever been, and they certainly don't help maintain Israel as a cause that garners bipartisan support in the U.S.

I asked Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, what he thought the fallout from this editorial might be. He e-mailed back the following: "Having been in Jewish journalism for more than four decades, I can tell you that there was a time when there would be hell to pay in the community for editorials in an American Jewish newspaper criticizing Israeli policy. That’s no longer the case. An optimist could say it’s because our community is more open and enlightened; a pessimist could say it’s because people don’t care as much and/or they don’t connect to Israel in their kishkas (guts) the way their parents or grandparents did. Or quite possibly because they do care about Israel but don't agree with the policy under fire."

The New York Jewish Week editorial closes with this thought:

Jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with its most important allies to prove a point — that Jerusalem is not up for grabs — at a time when his country is increasingly isolated on the diplomatic level, when violent unrest in the capital since the summer has prompted some to call it “the silent intifada,” and when the Palestinians may well seek statehood through the UN, makes sense if the prime minister is ready to go it alone. But that’s not what his citizens want, and it would be a terrible mistake.

This is exactly right.