Israel’s future pits left and right in respectful debate

In contrast to certain debates you may have seen in recent months, a Nov. 15 discussion about the future of Israel between representatives of the pro-Israel left and right was well informed and cordial on both sides.

About 60 people gathered at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City to witness two men, both popular journalists and commentators, square off about “The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” as the event was titled. Speaking for the left was J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward. On the right was Jonathan Tobin, chief political blogger of Commentary magazine.

The moderator, PJCC Director of Jewish Life Rabbi Lavey Derby, framed the event as a formal debate: He asked four questions, giving both sides prescribed times for their answers and rebuttals. The topics were broad — “some of the most important issues facing Israel today,” Derby said.

Question 1: What can Israel expect from the Trump administration? Both combatants agreed: It’s too soon to tell.

(from left) J.J. Goldberg, Rabbi Lavey Derby and Jonathan Tobin photo/sharon giordano

“Trump has said a great many things,” Tobin said, noting that President-elect Donald Trump has not presented consistent policy.

Tobin also made a point that he would make again and again throughout the debate: Trump — and everyone else, for the matter — should “get tough” with Palestinian leadership, instead of Israeli leadership. “That may not bring peace,” Tobin admitted, but it’s a chance to be “more realistic.”

When Goldberg’s turn came, he shrugged and said, “Trump is a mystery.”

However, Goldberg said, there is one clear indicator of Trump’s intentions: He has repeatedly discussed plans to dismantle international agreements. “That can’t be good           for Israel,” Goldberg said.

Question 2: Should world opinion play any role in Israel’s decision-making?

Goldberg’s response, like much of what he said throughout the evening, was a quick but detailed exposition of the history of the status of the West Bank and Gaza. According to the Geneva Convention, he said, occupied territories are those that have been captured from another sovereign power. But Israel captured the territories from no one. “The framers of the Geneva Convention never imagined that,” Goldberg said.

The end result is that the international community and Israel disagree on their legal status. But, Goldberg said, Israel “got out of Gaza to show the world, ‘We are not immune to your opinion.’”

The political ramifications inside Israel of withdrawing from the West Bank would be different, he said. According to the religious settlers, “The West Bank was promised by God, Gaza was not.”

Tobin sees the issue in stark terms: Criticism of Israel is “not about the decency of mankind … It’s part of the rising tide of anti-Semitism” globally.

The U.S. should stand by Israel as it is “treated like an outlaw nation” by the international community, Tobin said. Muslim radicals like ISIS are “disturbing the peace of the world,” not Israel.

Question 3: Is the two-state solution dead?

In theory, said Tobin, it’s the ideal solution. But it hasn’t happened, for which he placed the blame squarely on the Palestinians. Nevertheless, “It’s not dead. It can be revived.”

Goldberg noted that the Israeli cabinet recently voted “to legalize the hilltop outposts,” illegal West Bank communities established after the government froze creation of new settlements. In that light, the situation may seem intractable. However, Goldberg said — citing his many close contacts in the upper echelons of the Israeli military and intelligence community, as he did many times during the debate — “Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) is afraid of a bi-national state,” which is what may emerge if the two-state solution never comes to pass.

Question 4: What is the role of radical Islam in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Goldberg said that, while virtually every other faction and movement in the Arab world has a role in the conflict, “ISIS and al-Qaida have almost no foothold.”

But, he said, there is a more interesting question: “To what extent does Israel play a role in global radicalization?” Arabs say, “It’s all about Israel,” but everyone else says it’s unrelated.

“It is the great myth of foreign policy of the last generation that if the Israel-Palestinian conflict is fixed, the whole Middle East is fixed,” Tobin said. In the Arab world, “Israel is the little Satan,” he said — but the U.S. is the real bad guy.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at