By Abraham Katsman
May 15, 2011
Every frustrated sports fan knows the risk of abandoning a winning offensive game plan and adopting instead a strategy of playing to “not lose”: as often as not, a game well in hand is squandered. Yet, inexplicably, Israel employs just such a “not-lose” public diplomacy/hasbara playbook. Israel’s default diplomatic posture is reactive and defensive, never affirmatively asserting its positions. With major addresses regarding Israel by both President Obama nad Prime Minister Netanyahu fast approaching, Israel had better upgrade its diplomatic orientation quickly.
The results of Israel’s reactive strategy have been predictably bad. Consider the recent diplomatic “victory” in which the United States grudgingly vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution, unanimously supported by every other country, declaring illegal any Jewish homebuilding in Judea, Samaria, and most of Jerusalem. Simultaneously, the Obama administration ripped into Israel: “We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity[.] […] Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments[.]” With this from Israel’s best friend in the world, how many more such diplomatic victories can Israel afford?
Meanwhile, a diplomatic onslaught looms. Every couple of days, another country recognizes an independent “Palestine,” and the U.N. gears up for its own September endorsement. The “lawfare” and boycott nooses around Israel’s neck tighten. And campuses across North America again celebrate the slander-festival of “Israel Apartheid Week,” harassing and intimidating Jewish students and Israel supporters.
Yet when does Israel ever state its affirmative case for settlement? Or even for its existence? When was the last time we heard any public prosecution of the case for Israel? Instead, Israel is always on its heels, defending and deflecting twisted accusations of illegal/illegitimate/racist/apartheid/murderous acts and policies.
The defensive mindset is so ingrained that even professor Alan Dershowitz’s excellent book, The Case for Israel, is in fact structured not as proactive statement of Israel’s claims, but as a refutation of common anti-Israel canards. As a defense lawyer, Dershowitz might have an understandable mindset here, but what’s the excuse of Israel’s spokesmen for not making Israel’s proactive case?
Israel’s spokesmen focus on issues of security or promotion of Israel’s democratic values and astounding accomplishments. Very nice. But this essentially gives away the game, as it implicitly concedes unanswered Palestinian claims to disputed lands and even allows questions of Israel’s very legitimacy to metastasize. If Israel does not broadcast its own claims, and instead leaves the impression that disputed territories are rightfully Palestinian, then who cares how many start-ups Israel incubates, how gay-friendly, pluralistic, progressive, or environmentally conscious it is? Once Palestinian claims go uncontested, even Israel’s serious security concerns become mere technical problems to be solved rather than reasons not to cede sovereignty.
Palestinian positions became ascendant through a combination of endless repetition, oily diplomatic blackmail, rank anti-Semitism, a gullible left-leaning press, and the Western disposition to support whoever is perceived as the underdog. But contributing to Israel’s isolation is the widespread ignorance of the Israeli side of the dispute — including by many Israelis — due to the utter failure to clearly set forth Israel’s claims. And that can change. Right away.
Why not play some offense? Why not play to win? The Jewish people have moral, historical, religious, and legal claims to disputed lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that are every bit as strong — stronger, in fact — than Palestinian claims. These claims are recognized by left and right alike; remember, the settlement enterprise was initiated by Labor governments.
Why not state these claims publicly? Not just once, but repeatedly, until they are as much a part of the reflexive public consciousness as Palestinian claims? And repeat that in spite of Israel’s rights, it is Israel that is willing to forego many of its claims as part of a peace agreement; what reciprocation is forthcoming from the other side?
How hard is it to explain that Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem make up the heart of the historical Jewish homeland? That legally binding international treaties all designated the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to be a Jewish national home? That these areas were for centuries home to Jewish communities — until recently expelled or massacred? Or that Jordan, which unilaterally occupied this territory from 1948-1967, also unilaterally renounced all claims to it in 1988?
How hard is it to explain that the modern State of Israel was built overwhelmingly on land purchased by Jews? That the forcibly exiled Jewish people never ceded their claim to their homeland? That there has been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem for three thousand years? That the city has been majority-Jewish for over 150 years?
How hard is it to ask the next interviewer who assumes that Israel “occupies” Palestinian lands on what date the Palestinians gained sovereignty rights? Or on what date the Jewish people and State of Israel lost their claims? Or what is sacrosanct about an old armistice line, never recognized as an international border, between then-warring countries?
This is not to advocate either a right- or left-wing position regarding any peace agreement. Settlement may be both Israel’s right and foolish and destabilizing. It is simply a call to pronounce the Jewish State’s moral, legal, historical, and religious rights when making Israel’s public case. A world more fully conscious of Israeli claims will be less susceptible to anti-Israel propagandists.
The clock is ticking. Frame the debate. Play some offense. Play to win.
Abe Katsman is an American lawyer and political commentator living in Israel. He is also counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.