June 9th, 2010
04:52 AM ET
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.
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