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How Should American Jewry Read the Signals from Israel?

Daniel J. Elazar

Nobody likes to be confused. Certainly not more than necessary. Yet there are times when one party can only give others confusing signals because the matters being signaled about are themselves ambiguous, confusing, or in doubt. That is the case with regard to Israel and the peace process today. The signals are mixed because matters are not clear and different people read them differently, quite legitimately. In time, no doubt, these signals will become clearer as the reality does.

Indeed, the maximum of confusion, for the moment at least, probably was reached just before the implementation of the first stage of the Israel-PLO agreement on Gaza and Jericho, when the most hopeful expectations were rivaled by the most dire predictions. As most sober minded people anticipated, the results were somewhere in the middle, neither utopian nor catastrophic. Indeed for many of us, they have been better than we expected. This does not mean that the potential danger has been significantly lessened, but it does give us all ground for hope and even has somewhat reduced the conflicting signals.

What can thoughtful American Jews do? For one thing, they should pay careful attention to the "bottom line" in news reports. Almost by definition, news reports focus on the most sensational and we have already learned that, even in times of confidence- building, the PLO frequently fights its battles in the media, using them to make claims about agreements made that, in fact, are still under discussion and in which the position presented to the media is that of one side only. In almost every case, the final agreement has been very different from those initial media reports.

Second, American Jews need to recognize the "patterns" of statements made by leaders on both sides. Are they serious or bluff? Are they part of a patter of denials or posturing before concessions or do they represent real stands?

Third, American Jews should arrange to receive the most credible source possible directly from Israel. Israeli media are subject to the same kinds of "story" seeking that other media are, and many also specialize in rumors, but since they are written for Israelis, their reports must be more complete and give the news in greater depth. That is lacking in any non-Israeli source, even The New York Times whose biases always are clear to those who read carefully, whether we agree with them or not.

There is no single "objective" Israeli or Jewish source to recommend. The daily Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatches are not bad, although they lean to the side of the peace camp, and The Jerusalem Post weekly, or even better daily, is useful, even though it leans to the other side and is not a particular supporter of the peace process. Perhaps it is precisely because of that, that it does not take every government statement at face value, yet gives a sufficiently honest picture of events. The Jerusalem Report, which has other good qualities, in this area simply adds to the confusion, perhaps because of the ambivalence of it's own editorial leadership. To get a reasonable clear picture requires making a real effort to do so, but it can be done.

Needless to say, not every American Jew will be willing to make the effort. Interested American Jews should remember that old political adage that often "where you stand depends upon where you sit" as they listen to pronouncements from Israel or by Israelis. The Israeli peace camp is willing to give great credibility to the PLO and other Arab claims, some times even going so far as to speak apologetically in the name of the PLO leaders when the latter have not yet made statements on their own and to forgive Palestinian violations of agreements when they occur. The other side, on the other hand, is often stuck or appears to be stuck on old formulas and does not give any recognition in their pronouncements to the very real changes that have occurred. Not only do they expect the worst, but they often present their expectations with no recognition of how the situation on the ground has changed.

Then there are those diaspora Jews, many in the United States, who see only one side, the historic Jewish position, and refuse to recognize either changes on the ground or new political realities, presenting their claims as if there was no Arab side, only that of those Jews in Israel or abroad who disagree with them. Often they are right from a strictly historic or traditional viewpoint, but only confuse the discussion by refusing to recognize any Arab position and the Arabs' ability to impress those positions on everyone else.

Beyond that, Yitzhak Rabin is probably the most authoritative voice to whom to listen, but he often muddies the waters by imprudent statements about his Israeli opposition and dissimulation regarding his government's own activities. He is much blamed for this in Israel. Yet he has to be attended to seriously, but with certain amount of skepticism as well. Shimon Peres, on the other hand, is a man of vision and while his visions tend to be quite attractive, he often allows them to influence his descriptions of reality -- although when he has come to the bottom line, he has remained quite faithful to the Israeli security need.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the standard bearer of the Likud party, has not developed sufficient credibility for his position to build wide support for it, partly because of the tactical errors which he and the Likud committed after the Oslo Agreement and partly because the Likud has not been able to find a viable position that is a convincing vehicle to achieve peace and also to maintain its deeply held commitment to retain control of all of the land of Israel west of the Jordan River. Nor has anyone else in the Likud managed to offer a better alternative within the parameters of the contemporary realities and the Likud's entrenched position. Netanyahu and others in the Likud are probably more moderate than they appear to be, but the fact is that they can not appear to be.

With regard to the leaders of the religious camp, either "dovish" or "hawkish," their analyses are heavily influenced by their ideological positions. While this is generally true in Israel, it may be even more so with regard to the religious camp. This does not mean that the analyses are either correct or incorrect, only that they must be understood as having been filtered strong ideological prisms.

Does all this get us out of the confusion? It can, but not entirely. In the last analysis, most American Jews will continue to have this problem of signal reading if only because they are far away. The "instant news" of the contemporary electronic media tend to give the impression that distances have been bridged, but the nine second sound bites emphasizing the accepted pathos reserved for international news stories is not the same as being close by and able to see the larger picture. It is hard enough for Israelis to work their way though the confusion. For American Jews it maybe well nigh impossible. On the other hand, those interested, and we hope that there are many, must give it their best shot.

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