Open Zion

06.21.13

The AJC’s Next Logical Step: Condemn Israeli Settlements

When the American Jewish Committee condemned Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett’s remarks opposing a Palestinian state earlier this week, everyone reacted with surprise. The more hawkish Zionist Organization of America declared the condemnation downright “shocking.” Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, “To say such language is unusual at major U.S. Jewish organizations is an understatement.” Mairav Zonszein pointed out in these pages exactly how rare it is for the AJC to condemn Israeli government officials.

The expressions of surprise were closely followed by charges of inconsistency—both from those who condemned the AJC’s condemnation and from those who praised it. ZOA wrote that other leading Israeli officials have also vocally opposed Palestinian statehood—including Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Netanyahu’s coalition chief Yariv Levin, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, and former Prime Minister Shamir—and that “to be consistent, AJC should be criticizing them all.” Zonszein likewise noted that the AJC’s statement “ignores the fact that plenty of ministers within Netanyahu’s own party—including Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon—have said precisely the same thing as Bennett… Does this mean the AJC will also call on Danny Danon, Ofir Akunis, Tzipi Hotovely and many others in the Likud to be repudiated?”

While it’s true that the AJC has been inconsistent with regard to whose statements it condemns and whose it doesn’t, focusing solely on that point misses the larger problem at stake here: there is a deeper inconsistency at work within the AJC, and that is the failure to clearly and forcefully condemn Israeli settlement growth. The question we should all be asking this week is this: Now that the AJC has dipped its toes in the water by condemning words opposed to the two-state solution, will it take the next logical step and condemn the deeds—like settlement expansion—that give those words firm purchase in reality?

If you look closely at the language of the AJC statement, you’ll notice something strange: though Executive Director David Harris blasts Bennett’s rejection of the two-state solution, calling it “stunningly shortsighted,” he does not directly address Bennett’s most disturbing words: “The most important thing in the Land of Israel is to build, build, build.” Bennett is referring, of course, to West Bank settlements. And West Bank settlements, of course, seriously endanger the two-state solution, because they swallow up the land that would otherwise be earmarked for a Palestinian state. To criticize people who say the two-state solution is dead without criticizing the settlements that are actually killing it makes no sense. And yet, for years, the AJC has been doing just that.

Consider the AJC’s reaction to the 2012 Levy report, which concluded that West Bank settlements are legal under international law and that the Israeli presence in the West Bank does not constitute an occupation. The AJC agreed with these premises. The most it was willing to say was that unlimited settlement expansion might not be a wise move—and even this was perceived to be a big departure. At the time, the Forward wrote that with this statement the AJC was “breaking with the long-standing establishment consensus that settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank pose no impediment to peace” and “moving beyond a position adopted 30 years ago as the Jewish communal consensus.” It then noted:

AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler said the AJC never accused settlements of being an obstacle to peace, but rather said that they “are problematic.” He cited a statement passed by the AJC’s board last October: “While emphatically rejecting the contention that settlements are the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, AJC has long believed that Israeli settlement policy is not conducive to advancing prospects for peace.”

Neither the [liberal Israel Policy Forum] nor the AJC questioned the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Indeed, the AJC’s leader, Harris, affirmed that “Israel’s presence in the West Bank is based on solid legal ground.” But he added, “What may be legal is not always wise.”

There you have it. The harshest critique the AJC has been willing to make of settlement expansion is that it is “problematic,” “not conducive,” and “not always wise.” It’s this unwillingness to clearly condemn settlements that forms the major inconsistency American Jews should be noticing, and pushing back against.

Of course, for the AJC to take the next logical step of condemning settlements would not be easy; even its critique of Bennett got it skewered by more hawkish groups like ZOA. So Cohen is right when he notes in the Times that “Harris deserves applause for his stand.” But he’s also right when he notes, in the very next breath, that “American Jewish organizations must go further.”

Going further doesn’t just mean heeding Secretary of State John Kerry’s impassioned AJC speech, which has so far been met with a deafening silence from most Jewish groups. It means going the extra mile needed to achieve internal logical consistency. It means finding the courage to say out loud, and in no uncertain terms, what you’ve known for years to be true.