My final Israel commentary; why I’m ‘retiring’

My final Israel commentary; why I’m ‘retiring’

Last week, our pro-Israel peace camp was abuzz about a NY Times op-ed piece written by Nathan Thrall, an analyst for the International Crisis Group; he powerfully argues that “The Road to War [was] Paved by the West.”  Although I found it informative, I was less enthralled by Thrall (couldn’t resist the alliteration) than others were. Rather than a single overriding reason for the current troubling situation, I see two.

Just as the present Israeli coalition government cannot conceive of any lasting deal with Hamas (and decided to invade instead), Hamas seems incapable of explicitly endorsing peaceful co-existence with Israel.  If our camp were in power in Israel — say in a government in which the Meretz party had a significant voice (like Rabin’s coalition in the 1990s) — it would make every effort to find a way to work with Hamas as it is, despite its internal dynamics and contradictions.  But the reality is that Israel has a right-leaning government that won’t do that.
This is a government that chose to undermine the US-brokered peace process with the Palestinian party that favors peaceful negotiations, the PLO/Fatah headed by Mahmoud Abbas, by repeatedly announcing new construction plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — unilaterally changing conditions on the ground that needs to be negotiated over.  And most recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reflected upon the advances of the extremist ISIS movement in Iraq and Syria by declaring that the IDF will never withdraw from the West Bank, or at least not from the Jordan Valley bordering on the Kingdom of Jordan — a non-starter for all Palestinians, including the moderate camp headed by Pres. Abbas.  (Abbas seems open to a US or international troop presence, and a phased Israeli withdrawal; with some hard bargaining, Israel might reasonably push for a small IDF observer presence on the border, alongside a third-party force.)  Conclusion number one: Israel cannot make peace under its current right-leaning government headed by Mr. Netanyahu. 

As for Hamas, instead of engaging in a hopeless mode of warfare that randomly attacks Israelis only to endanger its own population more, when Israel inevitably responds militarily, Hamas needs to change fundamentally.  But Hamas is desperate to remain Hamas, as it attempts to win a propaganda war; Israel obliges (despite its phone calls and “knock on the roof” efforts to avoid civilian casualties) by inflicting massive harm on Gaza’s population and infrastructure.  When you come down to it, what do we say about a movement that fights a war with the broken bodies of its own people?  Conclusion number two: The Palestinians cannot make peace with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip.

Most Israelis are understandably convinced that Hamas is an implacable foe and therefore, that there is no alternative to what Israel is doing now.  I was horrified to learn, in a pre-dawn phone call from Israel, that many of my relatives there think that I “write against Israel.”  To allay misunderstandings, and maybe for my own mental health as well, I will now retire from doing commentary on Israeli politics (for an indefinite period, if not permanently).

My writings tend to be very nuanced, with subtleties and complexities not easily picked up by people consumed in the emotions of a conflict like this; and they are especially hard to grasp by people with limitations in English.  I don’t blame them, and I don’t want them to feel any more pain on my account.  While it’s regrettable that views are becoming so polarized — as they generally are in wartime — I can’t have my relatives, all of whom have gone out of their way to show their love and exhibit hospitality, feel that I am betraying them.    

By | 2014-07-23T11:30:00-04:00 July 23rd, 2014|Blog|9 Comments


  1. Richard Schwartz July 23, 2014 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Ralph, having some hawkish relatives in Israel I fully understand where you are coming from. Problem is that most people see the world in terms of balck and whet, good vs. evil, us vs. them, and love to demonize groups they disagree with. Very few, while recognizing negatives of others, seek to find common ground and solutions. You are one of these people and your messages are needed more than ever.

    As Thoreau stated, “any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

    Along with many Israeli security experts, including all living former directors of Shin Bet, we know that a 2-state resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is essential.

    I hope that, perhaps after a short break, you will renew your very important efforts.

  2. Edward Goldstein July 23, 2014 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    I don’t presume to tell Ralph what to do re his own family relations. His pain and his commitment are obvious. Analytically, however, one can observe that his situation and coming silence exemplify how American Jewry is prevented (in various ways) from playing the role it valuably could vis-a-vis Israel: to be a coach instead of serving as a cheerleader.

  3. Tim Chastain July 23, 2014 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I am so sorry I will no longer be able to hear you balanced words on this very important issue. I hope things go well for you.

  4. Ron Skolnik July 23, 2014 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    I hope you’re back writing soon, Ralph. Similarly, I have clashed (sometimes angrily) with friends in Israel over similar issues.

    When I worked at PfPI, in my first year as director in ’08, I wrote the following for its magazine, Israel Horizons, which you edited(; I think it’s still accurate today and hope it gives you strength:

    “… as someone who cares deeply about Israel, I have long argued that the cheerleading service provided by ostensibly ‘pro-
    Israel’ advocates is actually a disservice. Cheerleaders, by definition, are biased observers; their credibility is inherently suspect. Since it’s hard to believe that Israel’s government never gets it wrong, those who
    make this claim end up as dubious ‘character witnesses’ in the court
    of public opinion. And although main-street America continues to support Israel in large numbers, such sentiment is not predestinate: Should Americans’ sympathy for Israel ever waver, the Jewish homeland will need allies who can be counted on for ‘straight talk’.”

  5. Jenny Hurwitz July 23, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    I am one of those people who very much need to hear nuanced heartfelt information about the current and ongoing conflict and how we can get to a ceasefire and 2 state solution. I feel my opinion falls in-between various stands being taken in petition and out on the street and appreciate so much the PPI and APN stands and petition. All of us taking poisons for not one more Palestinian child’s grave-not one more Israeli soldier’s death – ceasefire now- whatever you want to call it – are going to feel that deep trouble of family and friends telling us we have betrayed Israel. But the irony is that Israel will cease to exist if it does not commit to a long term peace and agape and justice with the Palestinians. Please keep writing – I can’t keep yelling at my apartment walls.

  6. Hillel Schenker July 23, 2014 at 7:22 pm - Reply

    Ralph, from my vantage point in Tel Aviv, I don’t think that you are betraying your relatives in this time of crisis. On the contrary, you are writing as a dedicated progressive Zionist out of love and concern for Israel, and in what you believe to be the best interests of Israel, and also of your relatives who live here.

    I can understand their combination of anxiety and perhaps anger, at a time when elements in the Israeli government, media and the street are claiming that any divergent views equal disloyalty while the guns are firing. But we are in the midst of crisis, which as you write is to a great degree a result of inept Israeli policy. Which does not absolve Hamas of its significant share of blame and responsibility for the crisis.

    We are in the midst of a struggle for the health of our democracy and the future of Israel and the Jewish community around the world, and your voice should continue to be heard, with its usual combination of insight, sensitivity and nuance.

    This morning, after I went to the pool at Dizengoff Center, I put on my Walkman to listen to my favorite station 88 FM. At the end of the first hour, the d-jays played David Broza’s song “Yiheyeh Tov” (It will be good), written after Sadat’s arrival in Jerusalem, with its memorable line about there can be peace, “just give back the territories”. This was followed at the beginning of the next hour by “Song of Peace” by the Nachal Army Singing troupe, the powerful anti-war song that was the #1 song of the year 1970, and the song that Yitzhak Rabin sang at the end of the rally in 1995 when he was assassinated. The d-jays were sending a message out to all of us.

  7. Jenny Hurwitz July 24, 2014 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    Amen. I would really like to see a dignified March of the Peacemakers in various localities calling for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations. The demonstrations I hear about in NYC either call for unconditional support of the Israeli government or vilify Israel sending rockets into civilians without mentioning Hamas’s complicity in the tragedy.

  8. werner cohn July 31, 2014 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    “My writings tend to be very nuanced, with subtleties and complexities not easily picked up by people consumed in the emotions of a conflict like this; and they are especially hard to grasp by people with limitations in English.”

    Yikes, Ralph, I didn’t realize how simple-minded we are, those of us who disagree with you. But thanks for letting us know. And yes, being foreign-born, I must learn more English so that I can better understand nuances and subtleties. As you say, they are hard to grasp for someone like me.

  9. Ralph Seliger August 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Thanks very much for your compliments and good wishes. My irate cousin again called me this morning (several times) to try to understand my perspective and to press hers on me. She also wanted to make it clear that she loves me.

    I wasn’t trying to insult either you or my relatives. My Israeli relatives are all Sabras and most do not speak or read English well, which I believe limits their understanding of what I have written in the past.

    With you, it’s a different matter. You’re entitled to disagree with my views, of course, but I wish you’d not find insults where they don’t exist.

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