Israel is under attack, not just from the ongoing “stabbing intifada,” but from enemies who seek the delegitimization of the Jewish state through the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and sometimes from its friends.
This was the message shared by participants and echoed forcefully by Israeli politicians at the second annual Israeli-American Council conference last weekend.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, spoke out against those who take the “simple” view that leaving the territories in the West Bank would solve the problem of Palestinian terror.
“The idea that renewing the peace process or withdrawing from the territories will somehow stop terrorism is a fiction,” he said. “Terror attacks like the ones we have seen in the last few weeks have been taking place for nearly 100 years.”
Lies about the disruption of the status quo of the Temple Mount, which Muslims refer to as Haram al-Sharif, were spread by Hamas, the northern branch of the Islamic movement and by the Palestinian Authority, and ignited the current violence, said Dermer.
He gave a dim view of peace prospects, telling attendees at the conference in Washington to examine how Palestinian children are educated in hatred of Israel and Jews.
“The international community should use the money it provides the Palestinians, and the legitimacy it confers on them, to make clear that President [Mahmoud] Abbas will not be considered a peace partner if he does not take an unequivocal stance against terror and end incitement,” said Dermer.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked shared Dermer’s view, telling the audience that she did not believe there would be “peace in the Middle East” in the next five years. In a rare move by an Israeli diplomat on American soil, she directly criticized statements last week by Secretary of State John Kerry that appeared to blame both sides equally for the violence.
She called the comparison, which Kerry walked back and clarified through a State Department spokesperson the day after, “a distortion of reality.”
(Dermer had been more subtle in his dig, saying, “When it comes to the Middle East, very smart people sometimes believe in very foolish things.”)
But Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was scheduled to meet with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week, was by far the most outspoken in his criticism of Abbas, comparing the Palestinian Authority leader, whom he referred to by his nom du guerre, to Adolf Hitler.
Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told the audience on Sunday night, “There is a great similarity between the incitement of the Palestinian Authority under Abu Mazen and the incitement of the Nazis against the Jewish people before the Second World War.”
“In terms of the level of incitement and its intensity, the level of anti-Semitism in this incitement, [Abbas] is even worse than Arafat,” Steinitz said, referring to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He warned Kerry, who is scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leadership this week, that Abbas cannot be seen “as a partner for any positive process as long as there is no dramatic change.”
Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Zionist Union party, stopped short of defending Abbas, but said he was tired of the government “endlessly blaming” the PA president, a sharp rebuke to the members of Knesset who preceded him in the line-up on Saturday night.
“Abu Mazen was about to quit a few months ago,” said Herzog, “and I don’t think the Israeli leadership was very excited about the idea that he would quit. So let’s not be hypocritical about it.”
In a meeting with Abbas in August, Herzog said, the Palestinian leader related that he was fearful of a third intifada and losing control of his “youngsters.”
Abbas “is disappointing in many ways,” said Herzog, but he’s a negotiating partner, however flawed.
“We have to ask our people, ‘Do you want to liquidate that authority? Do you want to run over that area, do you want to control the three million Palestinians or not? If not, then be bold and make a change,” Herzog said to applause.
The terror that has rocked Israel these last few weeks was clearly on the minds of the 1,300 attendees.
Young people sat with their laptops and tablets in a social media “situation room” created for the conference. As Israeli news played on a large screen before them, they Tweeted, Facebooked and Instagrammed facts about Israel and support to their family and friends abroad.
It is one way the Israeli-American community is using technology to combat BDS and engage with the public.
The incoming IAC chairman, Adam Milstein, pulled out his smartphone to show off another tool, a new app.
Talk Israel, available for free for both Apple and Android phones, aggregates Israel news and advocacy content. As Milstein swiped through the options, he showed how the feeds can be customized based on the users interests. The app’s algorithm learns users’ preferences to provide customized content that can be shared on social media or saved to read for later.
“The method of being passive and reactive did not work, and there is a very wide realization that we need to go beyond this,” said Milstein. “We need to attack the attackers. We need to get to the bottom of who is behind this. Who are the leaders, who are the followers?”
The followers, he said, should be engaged and educated, but the leaders, he maintained, need to be exposed. Broad coalitions with Americans need to be built, too, and the IAC should “be the nexus between the American people and Israel.”
Right now, if people are told BDS wants to destroy Israel, “people will think we’re overreacting,” said Milstein.
“I look at BDS as trying to eradicate the State of Israel,” explained Milstein. “They are saying, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ They are not hiding that they want to destroy Israel.”
“We take it very seriously and we feel this is something that the IAC should take a major role in fighting.”
In her remarks at the opening of the conference, Shaked commended these social media efforts. Those efforts, paired with the 100 million shekalim and 10 staffers the Israeli government has designated to combat BDS, plus the legal pursuits of her office, she said, would help turn the tide.
“Today it’s very not politically correct to be anti-Semitic, but it’s super cool to be anti-Israeli and actually, they influence campuses all around the world,” said Shaked.
“We definitely understand that [and] we should attack back.”