June 9th, 2010
04:52 AM ET

My Take: The flotilla’s lessons for Mideast peace advocates

Editor's Note: Jeremy Ben-Ami is president and founder of J Street and a former deputy domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton.

By Jeremy Ben-Ami, Special to CNN

I had the good fortune of spending last week with Ami Ayalon, former commander of Israel’s Navy and former director of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), as I processed the lessons and consequences of the Gaza flotilla.

Who better to help reflect on the deeply troubling events than one of Israel’s most decorated military heroes – who happens to have commanded the very naval commando unit that carried out last week’s raid.

Here are some important lessons I learned.

One, distinguish between victory and revenge. If your enemy hits you (rockets from Gaza, metal pipes on a ship deck) it may be satisfying to hit back harder (Operation Cast Lead, taking over a civilian boat with commandos), but ask whether such actions bring you closer to real victory.

“Winning” for Israel should mean achieving a safe, Jewish and democratic Israel. Perpetuating the occupation and relying only on force and power against Hamas is a losing strategy.

Two, don’t look at Hamas solely as a military threat. While we see Hamas as a terrorist organization, Palestinians see it as an “idea,” offering hope of achieving what they want – an end to occupation, freedom and independence. You can’t beat an idea with brute force, only a better idea.

Immediate, bold pursuit of a diplomatic end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only way to beat Hamas. Provide Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other Palestinians who still favor two states with tangible proof that their approach works, and they (and we) will win. Deny them, and those who promote terror and violence win.

Three, recognize that reliance solely on force and power to advance interests in the Middle East is counterproductive. Strength is important, but not useful if exercised in the absence of meaningful diplomacy.

Four, recognize that we aren’t in some great Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, in which the forces of light (us) line up against the forces of darkness (them). Rather, recognize that we are witnessing a clash within civilizations between moderates and fundamentalists. Misunderstanding the battlefield dooms you to lose the war.

Five, the United States has the pivotal role to play. The gap in how Israelis and Palestinians see the situation is too large: Israelis believe they offered everything and got only rockets; Palestinians believe they’ve engaged in a peace process for eighteen years and gotten only settlements.

President Obama must step forward with a clear vision of the “end game” – what exactly each side will get in a final peace deal. Prior approaches that depended on step-by-step confidence building while delaying hard choices will fail. Drawing on his years at sea, Ayalon reminded me that there’s no wind strong enough to take you where you’re going when you have no idea where you’re headed.

The bottom line: it is time for a dramatic course correction in Israeli and American policy in the Middle East and for President Obama to turn this crisis into an opportunity for a bold, new diplomatic push to end the conflict.

In response to the events of the past week, the American Jewish establishment and other “friends” of Israel have lined up, as expected, in unquestioning defense of Israel’s actions at sea, and its policy toward Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinians generally.

They’ve tried to steer conversations toward the behavior of a few passengers on the Mavi Marmara or to how the world’s reaction to the events is part of an effort to delegitimize the state of Israel.

Anything but focus on whether Israel’s larger strategy or policy is actually fatally flawed.

My wish for America’s Jewish establishment: spend even a few hours with Ami Ayalon. Perhaps he can help you re-conceive what it means to be a friend of Israel at this critical moment in the country’s history and to realize that what Israel needs from its friends has changed over time. To support Israel in the past, we were asked to send money, to visit, and even to consider making “aliyah” (moving to Israel).

Today, says Ayalon, there is one imperative for friends of Israel: tell us the truth – even if it’s painful. As it becomes increasingly isolated, insecure and scared, Israel is finding it harder to see for itself what is happening – how its actions are deepening its isolation and dooming the chances of maintaining a Jewish and democratic Israel.

Israel’s future hangs in the balance. Without a major course correction, American friends of Israel are poised to witness, on our watch, a tragic fate for the Jewish, democratic state we’ve loved and supported over the past century.

It’s a true act of friendship for us to help Israel see how critical it is to end the occupation and create two states, to make this the centerpiece of American and Israeli policy, and to rely again on our people’s moral compass to guide the way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeremy Ben-Ami.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Barack Obama • Israel • Judaism • Middle East • Opinion

soundoff (168 Responses)
  1. Religion

    Suffered genocide most extra perform. .........Prior approaches that depended on step-by-step confidence building.........
    this are the good informations...............
    thanking you.............

    June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  2. Henry

    I wonder why it Israel is to privide "Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other Palestinians who still favor two states with tangible proof that their approach works, and they (and we) will win. Deny them, and those who promote terror and violence win" and not the other way around.Why it is not requested from Abbas to do something to persuade US that he is actually agree to have Jewish state as his neghbor and to be a good neighbor to her?

    June 11, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  3. Emile Zola

    I've cried many times with the attrocities committed against the Jews, but I also have cried and will cry with the attrocities committed by the radical Jews subjugating the Palestinian people. They might not have money and politcial power to defend them, but the people whose God gaves the Ten Commandments can't be so callous to their suffering and please don't tell me about the rockets that are as accurate as winning the lottery. How can a rabbi justify what is going in Gaza today is beyond comprehension and a contradiction to high heaven. You would think that people who suffered so much would be more empathic to others, but politics and secret agendas trump religion and democracy. There can't be a democracy and religion in a country that behaves so nazi-like.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Henry

      Palestinian people have financial support from the richest oil magnats of the world and political support from the rest of the world. It is Israel who lucks both.

      June 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  4. Kyle

    Blah, we just get different degrees of Pro-Israel opinion that give the illusion of debate in the US. I would like to see some pro-Palestinian opinions in the US corporate media. For the last 40 years the "debate" in the US has been between rabid pro-Israel fundamentalists and moderate pro-Israel forces like J-Street. The first step is actually having real debates.

    June 11, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  5. midnite rambler

    I have spent about an hour reading down the long list of comments. I cannot but wonder about who is reading J Street stuff. I took Jeremy's column as a representative statement of J Street's ideas. But most of the comments seem to object either to Jeremy's moderateness in support of Israel, or to the fact that he supports Israel to any degree at all. Why would anyone in either of these camps read J Street stuff to start with?

    June 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  6. William Smith

    It's sad, but I think it's inevitable at this point – Israel will cease to exist during our lifetimes. I was a noble idea, but unfortunately, as times have changed Israel's approach to its problems has not. You people at J-Street have the answers, but no one is listening. Truly tragic.

    June 11, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  7. proud israeli

    oh , im sorry , that reply supposed to be on another article -" white house correspondent, helen thomas retires".
    but you can still read it if you want : )

    June 10, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  8. AlanRockville

    Whether the viewpoints are from Ben Ami or Ayalon really doesn't matter. The discussion needs to center around what is best for the people and countries of that region. My perspective (pretty close to Ben Ami):

    Both sides have leadership who are committing actions that are driven by fear, mistrust, and greed. On the surface they seem calculated and to a certain extent they are, but there is no mindset of compromise right now between the extremists on both sides (I've debated both the Israeli settlers and anti-Zionist Palestinians, which have in common the same motto – "Not one inch"). I've also personally met people on both sides who are yearning for a peaceful coexistence in a 2-state solution (they are willing to "start all over" at either 1947 or 1967). The problem is that we hear less about the latter because they are not in power and the media prefers sensationalist stories so that they can get their ratings up. And the extremist voices on both sides are very loud and very organized and very "nationalistic" (if you don't agree with me you are a traitor). Iran is a great example of extreme nationalism being in control, though the population is nowhere near that mindset.

    When I discuss this issue with the Nationalists from both sides, the conversation often ends when I ask "So where do you see this going? Neither Israeli Jews nor Arabs are ever going to give up and go away. Are you willing to therefore accept generations of eternal conflict?". My Nationalistic friends will usually switch the subject at this point.

    The solution that I see will center around regime changes. Not an overthrow of anybody's system, but rather who is in charge. The world needs Gorbachevs, Mandelas, Rabins, Sadats, Havels – you get the drift. To get there the grassroots of moderation on all sides must speak out. We need to educate against fingerpointing, scapegoating (a Biblical sin), playing the victim, and find ways to work through our fears to build trust. Right now few of us feel any trust toward the other side – that is understandable. But this cannot go on forever.

    In his autobiography (originally written in the 1990's) , Barack Obama identified a Chicago Black Nationalist named "Rafik" who was driven my scapegoating and greed. Fortunately, his movement was small. But Obama gave his take on why this philosophy is wrong. If you ever get a chance, please read that chapter, as I believe it applies to many leaders today.

    For us as individuals, let's find the common bonds we share – and work towards world leadership that works hard to remove the animosities rather than exploit them.

    June 10, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  9. LogicVoice

    Mr. Ami Ayalon is known to talk fantasies.

    In 2004 Israel withdrawn completely from Gaza, including demolishing homes of thousands of Israelis after taking them by force out of their own homes. Hamas response – bomb civilians in the vicinity of Gaza on the Israeli side.

    When the British army left Israel back in 1947, Israel leveraged that event to build a country, to develop a culture and a thriving economy. If Palestinian only learned that lesson and directed their energy to positive things, everything could have been different.

    It is the Jewish guilt talking out of this article, but face it, Palestinian have to grow up already, and start contributing something good to world society.

    Bombing Israel, sending terrorists to bomb in the streets of Tel-Aviv is not getting anyone anywhere. Sometimes you can't control what the other side is doing, can't force them to talk peace.

    Abu Mazen and his government have no power over Hamas.

    Bottom line, Mr. Ayalon is indeed decorated, a nice person, hopeful and full of good intentions, but ignores reality.

    June 10, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  10. dan

    Jeremy wishes to impose HIS opinions on a sovereign nation. Have you ever heard of PAC that sole purpose is to shove an agenda down another countrys throat? Did you read Jstreet's first release about flotiila, basically saying their heart goes out to the terrorists who harmed israeli soliders aka"humanitarians" .. then when facts were revealed tried to hide the sword they used in the attempt to cut off israels head.
    Jstreet shows its fangs to israel at every opportunity.. this is not pro-israel bur pro-soros

    June 10, 2010 at 2:08 am |
  11. GarE

    I know there is no easy solution to this but I urge both sides to consider this those who have suffered genocide must be extra sure not to perform genocide. Because regardless of what side I would take in this.....what one writter mentioned earlier is very true....Once the enemies of Israel aquire nuclear weapons then this mess will drag the entire world into a third world war. I see this happening in one of two ways:
    1. the power aquiring this atomic or nuclear capability will launch a weapon to perform an EMP attack to cripple the US and nulifiy the US-Isreal alliance, then attack Israel without interferance.....then sadly all out war from there on for all sides
    2. Pro-Israel forces will launch a premptive attack.......again leading to all out war for all sides

    BOTH SIDES are at fault for this but neither side is trying to prevent the horror to come
    My prayer is that one day We won't want war any more and our children can play

    June 10, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  12. Ken

    The columnist also fails to realize that there is a clash of civilizations. His political correctness no doubt prevents him from acknowledging this and "offending" anyone. The clash is between good and evil. There will never be peace between Israel and the surrounding muslim region because Islam cannot abide peace with Israel because Israel shows Islam up for what it is: a lie. The hatred and fighting will continue to the end, until Messiah Jesus returns. The good news is that Israel will not be destroyed no matter what the muslims try to do, and history has shown God's hand in protecting Israel and bringing Israel back into their Covenant land. The columnist fails to understand that Israels isolation amongst the nations is one of the things God will use to open the eyes of the Covenant people to see their Savior and Redeemer, the Son of David, Jesus Christ! God will fulfill His word and keep and save Israel. But not through the nonsense that this columnist has suggested.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  13. Ken

    Another politician speaks...and shows us his ignorance and futile thoughts on "peace" for Israel. First, let's consider that before Cast lead, Israel delayed any military defence of its people for YEARS, enduring up to 8000 rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza. Then let us remember that Gaza was given to the Palestinians to promote peace. The silly "land for peace" nonsense. Israel HAS stayed its hand from revenge and has done just what this columnist has recommended in regards to not using force to achieve peace. But regardless, Israel ALWAYS loses and and is painted the aggressor no matter what Israel does. ONLY FOR ISRAEL, is defending your civilians disregarded to promote "peace."

    June 10, 2010 at 1:09 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.