Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson made plenty of headlines the other night when he took part in a Yeshiva University panel on the subject “Will Jews Exist?”When he wasn’t denying that Palestinians are a people or suggesting that the United States nuke Iran, Adelson let drop that he was putting some of his money into a new website, Rethink Israel, aimed at making Israel “cool, not uncool.”
It’s certainly a slick production with features as disparate as how Israeli beaches have Wi-Fi and how there’s a new TV channel for Israeli dog lovers. Other sections showcase hot Israeli shoe designers, how friendly Israel is toward gays and how Israel is developing a bike made of cardboard.
Highlighting positive aspects of Israel, a country that truly is innovative and interesting, does help develop a fully-rounded picture. And this is surely a better use of Adelson’s money than funding Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign or subsidizing a free Israeli newspaper that relentlessly glorifies the image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.But if Adelson imagines that this kind of “beyond the conflict” publicity will change public perceptions of Israel in the United States or Europe, he’s sadly mistaken. It’s been tried before many times and it has never succeeded.
Its adherents call it the “beyond the conflict” strategy. It basically tries to change the subject by talking about any aspect of life in Israel that has nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation, from boutique wineries to drip agriculture. It works great among people who already love Israel uncritically—and falls flat among everyone else.
Give the folks behind the Adelson website some credit for creativity. They have taken “beyond the conflict” to new heights. There’s a page on how Israel could become the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur coats (a huge sacrifice in a such a chilly Middle Eastern nation). Another proudly proclaims that Israel has pioneered a law against using ultra-skinny models. “While other countries have guidelines against undernourished models strutting the runway, Israel is the first nation to make it illegal,” the text declares.
All of these nuggets may be interesting and worthy in their own way—but they don’t address the fundamental question. The simple truth is that we will never get “beyond the conflict” until we end it.
In the eyes of the international community, the argument will always come back to the way Israel treats the Palestinians and whether it truly desires peace and will do what it takes to achieve it. And as long as Israel continues to build settlements and maintains the occupation, the world is not going to pay too much attention to its boutique wineries.
Although “beyond the conflict” may be a failed PR strategy, for Adelson it seems to express something much more fundamental. He simply does not see the Palestinians at all. As he said in the panel at Yeshiva University, “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian. Do you know what they are? They call themselves southern Syrians.”
This statement echoes the words of Gingrich two years ago at the height of his presidential campaign (which was largely funded by Adelson) when he stated: “We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places.”
Today, there is scarcely an Israeli politician who denies the existence of a Palestinian people, even among those on the extreme right who adamantly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
Adelson’s willful refusal to see another people is striking. But perhaps there is a cure. One of the Israeli innovations highlighted by his new website highlights Israel’s role as a world leader in preventing blindness.
Physician, heal thyself!