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We’re Staunch Zionists. And We Are Worried About Israel’s Democracy

By Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat, Forward

Both of us have spent decades in public service in several U.S. administrations working to enhance the ties between the United States and Israel. Separately, in our private careers we have sought to promote the well-being of the Jewish people. We believe a strong, democratic Israel in the troubled Middle East is in the national security interests of the U.S.

We also believe that when Israel — where a plurality of Jews worldwide live — thrives, the Jewish community internationally and in America also thrives.

While understanding that the interests of Diaspora communities might not always converge with those of Israel, we have never believed that they would be fundamentally at odds. And, even when their interests might seem to diverge — as they often do when Israel acts militarily for security reasons and its actions produce a backlash internationally — we are strongly of the view that Israel’s concerns must take precedence.

We remain convinced that on its security, Israel’s government must be the judge of what is required. Whether in Gaza, where Hamas fomented efforts to breach the security fence, or in Syria, where Iran is seeking to create a military infrastructure for attacks against the Jewish state, Israel faces real threats and its government must have the flexibility to deal with them.

While understanding of Israel’s security needs, particularly in a region where the consequences of being weak are catastrophic, we do have concerns about some Israeli policies on non-security issues. Israeli settlement policy, especially its construction outside of the settlement blocs in the West Bank, is one such policy. With numbers that now approach 100,000 to the east of the security barrier, it is becoming harder to preserve separation from the Palestinians and a possible two-state outcome as options.

If separation is not possible, Israel will increasingly run the risk of becoming a binational, Arab-Jewish state. That would compromise the Zionist mission and its Jewish-democratic ethos, and tear at the fabric that has bound America and Israel together.

Something else threatens that fabric: For 70 years, Israel has not been a partisan issue. Now, it threatens to become one. A Pew survey found that while nearly 80% of Republicans favor Israel over the Palestinians, the percentage of comparable Democratic support is an astonishingly low 27%. A Gallup poll this year shows the same yawning gap.

Why? On the one hand, Democrats tend to be more concerned with the civil and human rights of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Democratic Party has a larger component of non-white voters — Hispanics, African Americans, Asians — and these groups have less of a historic connection to Israel. If Israel cannot find ways of reaching out to these groups, it faces hard times ahead.

Yes, Democrats generally, and a majority of American Jewry, also question the logic of Israel’s settlement policy. But that questioning, especially among many American Jews, turns into alienation and even estrangement when they perceive Israel to be straying from its own commitment to liberal values. And, here, the Israeli embrace of the Trump administration contributes to this perception. Indeed, while the Administration is strongly committed to Israel’s security, its policies on immigration and refugees fly in the face of traditional Jewish values of accepting the “stranger.”