Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.

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A bipartisan, multilateral, muscular approach to Iran

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Although conflict fuels political campaigns, election contests also illuminate the political consensus. It is as important to understand where candidates agree as to see where they disagree. In the second, foreign-policy-oriented debate between the two presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama demonstrated that they both agree that Iran threatens America and the world.

“And our challenge right now is the Iranians continue on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, and it’s a great threat,” one of the nominees said. : “It’s not just a threat — threat to the state of Israel. It’s a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.” His rival proclaimed: “We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” Only the most devoted partisans could identify which nominee made which statement – and only the most devoted partisans could find a basis anywhere in those statements for them to clash. Obama’s earlier stated willingness to negotiate without preconditions haunts him. But this question of preconditions is a skirmish about tactics not a war about fundamentals.

Tragically, this broad American consensus against Iran’s going nuclear is undermined by European ambivalence – and cravenness. The latest reminder came from Germany’s Ambassador to Iran who allowed his military attaché to attend an Iranian military parade in Teheran last month. The parade featured the usual calls to destroy Israel – and America.

Anticipating November 5, the day AFTER the election, Americans must start emphasizing these points of bipartisan agreement, to accelerate what will be a necessary healing process. Anticipating January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, Americans must start thinking about the consensus the new president can count on – along with the strategic threats he will face.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. just released a noteworthy report offering a blueprint for the next president to follow in approaching Iran. (Full disclosure – I am a Visiting Scholar at the Center but did not work on the report). Available here the report is essential reading for the two candidates, their advisors, and every concerned Westerner. Deeming a nuclear weapons-capable Iran “strategically untenable,” the report says that, whoever wins the presidential election will have the “formidable task” of forging an effective bipartisan policy within the United States – along with a muscular multilateral policy abroad.

Balancing adeptly between scholarship and strategy, the report analyzes Iran’s past and present while presenting a thoughtful, integrated approach to nudge that country toward a more peaceful future. The new president will have to mix diplomatic, informational, and economic strategies, reinforced by possible military options. The task force, headed by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats, guided by the project director Dr. Michael Makovsky, advocates European cooperation, predetermined timetables for negotiation, and formidable, effective sanctions. Oil remains at the heart of the issue. America will have to consider blockading first Iran’s gasoline imports, then its oil exports, if negotiations fail. Calling for a “comprehensive strategy” and “vigorous execution” – both of which have been sorely lacking – these experts deem the military option “feasible” but a “last resort.” To be strong enough to avoid going military, and ready to launch if necessary, America has to build better alliances and pre-position military assets in the region immediately.

The scariest conclusion estimates that once Iran had an “adequate supply of low-enriched uranium” — which it might acquire within a year or possibly sooner — Iran could then enrich 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in “four weeks or less,” thus becoming “nuclear-weapons capable.” The most reassuring call is for “leverage building,” the process whereby America and her allies find just the right pressure points to avert this potential strategic disaster. “[I]t is not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work,” the authors insist. “Despite near record oil prices, Iran’s economy remains weak. While the United States, its European allies, and the United Nations have imposed some sanctions on Teheran, each has a range of more biting economic tools at their disposal.”

Although the authors pull their political punches in true bipartisan spirit, the current administration’s failures haunt the report. The initial mishandling of the Iraq war emboldened Iran and undermined confidence in a military option, if it becomes necessary. Moreover, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that underestimated Iran’s commitment to going nuclear lessened pressure on this rogue regime. Still, charting a bipartisan and multidimensional approach for the next president is the best way to progress, without bogging down in partisan recriminations.

Israel’s position in this remains awkward. Iran frequently lambastes Israel as the easiest – and closest — Western target. If the United States and Europe negotiated with Iran seriously, substantively, Teheran would try to make Israel’s policies – and Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities – central issues that would strain an already fragile alliance. And the possibility that Israel will choose to strike Iran remains the “wild card” in this deck – and a compelling incentive for America to solve the problem.

Bipartisanship is easily hailed and just as easily ignored, especially during an increasingly ugly election campaign. This report reminds us that the most serious challenges any nation faces transcend party. All Americans suffer from the stock market woes just as they are equally threatened by a nuclear Iran. Without ignoring partisan differences, without reducing complex issues to apple-pie generalities, America’s leaders have to lead away from partisan recrimination and toward national action. These kinds of bipartisan reports on these kinds of transcendent, existential national issues are helpful reminders of all that unites Americans – and useful roadmaps toward the kinds of strategies needed during this precarious time.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Where were Obama the dreamer and McCain the war hero?

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain face off during a presidential debate in New York last week.
Photo: AP

Americans want to believe that debates elevate our candidates. As we anticipate each presidential debate, we resurrect the legend of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas nobly debating the great issues of the day in pre-Civil War Illinois. Television, that great modern mythmaking machine, feeds the grandiose expectations, even if the names of Lincoln and Douglas are rarely evoked.

And the sets, drenched as they are in patriotic imagery, festooned as they are with eagles and banners, quite literally set the stage for the candidates to achieve political immortality. Of course, there is a counter “Gotcha” tradition of seeking the knockout blow, the cutting remark, the effective counter-jab. Modern debates have been defined more by quick thrusts of a sharp elbow than by sweeping statesmanlike visions.

What seems so memorable about these three presidential debates in 2008 is that they were simply not memorable, neither grandiose nor cutting. It is hard to identify one central idea, one dramatic moment, one defining soundbite that will be replayed repeatedly – or even remembered. Moreover – and more disturbing for both candidates – the debates seemed to banish both candidates’ better selves. In four-and-a-half hours of debates, it was hard to detect many traces of Barack Obama the dreamer or John McCain the war hero.

By contrast, the national conventions – although often dismissed as anachronistic – allowed the two candidates to present themselves as they hope to be known, and remembered. John McCain ended his rather pedestrian Republican National Convention address with a moving memoir about how his years as a prisoner-of-war helped him discover community, nationalism, the reliance of one individual on another. It was hard to walk away from watching the speech without appreciating McCain’s heroism, humility, and humanity, whether or not you agreed with his policies.

Alas, during the debates, the heroism has been on hold. McCain has been – as he was most notably in this third debate – more prickly than patriotic, more choppy than smooth, more of a worried candidate in search of a persona and a strategy than a centered demigod who knows who he is and what he represents. In his opening remarks on Wednesday tonight, he chose yet again to bash Wall Street and Washington – without at all suggesting that Main Street Americans had also joined in the profligacy. Again and again, his remarks seemed more calculated for political advantage than motivated by a constructive patriotism.

Similarly, despite encouragement to be more down-to-earth and less lofty, Barack Obama delivered an acceptance address at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver that was dramatic enough to remind supporters of his extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention debut. The grand stadium setting, and the historic nature of his ascension as the first black major party nominee, created another “Yes We Can” moment in a near-miraculous and quite meteoric rise to the top of American society.

Unfortunately, the Barack Obama on display in the debates frequently seemed too sober to dream, too cool to be a poet, too programmed to inspire. To Obama’s good fortune, his calm served his cause – it made him look unruffled, reliable, presidential. But it suggested that if Obama wins, it will feel more like a victory by default than a clear, personal triumph or a mandate for much of anything. He has kept his more electrifying, inspirational self carefully bottled, preferring to let McCain – and the Republicans – stumble. His great achievement in the fall campaign has been his buoyancy, his professionalism, his steadiness. Americans are yearning, however, for some inspiration, some encouragement, some ebullience.

While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls.

But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero.

This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically.

Gil Troy: From the Center: Keeping it civil

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-7-08

Last month, a de-magnetized identity card prevented me from entering the building housing my office on the McGill University campus at 10:30 one night. I asked a woman passerby who looked like a faculty member for help. “My ID card isn’t working,” I said. “I teach here.”

“I know who you are,” the woman spit out contemptuously. “You’re that awful right-wing conservative professor.”

Startled, I was about to launch into my standard defense when I face that accusation, saying how I consider myself a centrist, just wrote a book championing moderation and besides, if all she knows about me is that I’m pro-Israel and anti-terror and that makes me conservative, liberalism is in worse shape than I thought. Instead, I wisely stayed silent. I just looked at her quizzically. Backpedaling from this ugly descent into politics when a simple, civil exchange was required, my colleague said she lacked the correct card and left.

This admittedly minor but nevertheless outrageous incident highlights why those of us in the broader Zionist community should be particularly horrified by the pipe bomb attack against Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell ostensibly in the name of Zionism. Those of us who have defended Israel on campus know what it is like to take unpopular stands. We understand that independence of thought is the lifeblood of freedom, that democratic communities and especially intellectual communities wither in environments that smother dissent.

The attacks and ostracism pro-Israel professors experience worldwide reveal that the intolerance underlying the assault against Sternhell is not unique to Israel. But it is rare, and particularly horrible, to see this increasingly common small-mindedness degenerate into violence. The violence reflects the acute shortage of two key ingredients democracy demands: mutuality and civility.

IT IS the most compelling lesson from George W. Bush’s simplistic approach to democracy: Democracy entails much more than choosing your leader. The chaos of Iraq, the brutality of Gaza’s Hamas-Fatah civil war, teach that without mutual respect votes are worthless tools and rights are shams. Citizenship in a democracy requires a commitment to sharing rights, to granting the same liberties to others that we demand and enjoy.

People frequently swing rights as clubs, claiming their right to free speech without extending that freedom to others who disagree with them. Without that grace, people are not enjoying free speech but demanding personal prerogative. Mutuality requires thinking about others, accepting differences within the same community, and limiting some of our excesses for the common good. Mutuality tempers the individualism so essential to freedom, avoiding the descent into selfishness. Civility is the logical and necessary result.

Alas, modern Israel often lacks both mutuality and civility. The litter strewn about too many sidewalks, the aggressiveness harming so many on the roads, the harshness of so many public interactions and the corruption tainting so many leaders, all reflect the elevating of individual whims over communal norms. The palpable, toxic, mutual contempt between left and right, secular and religious, reveals an arrogant presumption of personal infallibility that demeans the freedom of others to draw opposite conclusions reasonably.

And the particular pathology of the settler community, characterized by illegal outposts, bursts of rioting and a growing disrespect for the police and the army is a ticking time bomb that must be defused. Last month, when 40 thuggish settlers attacked an IDF post near Horesh Iron every parent of an IDF recruit or reservist should have denounced this outrage. These soldiers are our sons, brothers and fathers. Anyone who targets them should be jailed; those who facilitate such attacks should be shunned.

After the Sternhell bombing, in the dying days of his administration, while giving interviews sounding more left wing than he ever did so he could guarantee adulation and steady speech income when he travels abroad, Ehud Olmert lectured his fellow citizens about avoiding “lawlessness.” Olmert’s unsuitability to teach anyone about respect for the law underlined his utter inadequacy as the country’s leader.

BOTH VIOLENCE and democracy define Israel’s history, interwoven like the two DNA strands. There is an element of the Wild West in the country, which despite its flaws remains the Middle East’s only real democracy. At its best, this unruliness is part of its appeal, making it compelling as a country-still-in-formation, as a place that can be more open, more malleable, more creative than the more staid West. At its worst, this rowdiness reveals itself in the ugly violence coursing through the society; in the rough way parents handle children, then children handle each other; in the growing crime rate; in occasional outbursts against Palestinians. Like all functional democracies, Israel must forge a community that indulges individuals enough so they flourish without spoiling them so much they harm others.

The balance is delicate, the stakes are high. The Sternhell pipe bombing reflects not only twisted individuals whose moral system has imploded but an ugly strain within society. If America the celebrity-obsessed produces glory hounds like the men who shot Ronald Reagan and killed John Lennon, a politically charged Israel produces ideological fanatics like the criminals who targeted Sternhell.

Fortunately, Israeli society is healthy enough to be united in disgust by this hooliganism. The attack was as evil as it was self-defeating. Instinctively – and blessedly as a disincentive to copycats – reporters echoed Sternhell’s most provocative pronouncements, broadcasting them more loudly than ever in response to this horrific attempt to silence him. All of us who love Israel, who cherish democracy, must embrace Sternhell as he recovers. And in that group hug we should utter the mantra of a healthy democracy rooted in mutuality, fostering civility: Whether or not I agree with you, I will defend to the death your right to express your ideas (knowing that it protects my rights too).

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

 

Center Field: The two state solution as the only unhappy alternative

By Gil Troy, JPost, 10-2-08

Some readers objected to the end of my last column on the lessons of Oslo. Most of the column argued that Arab and particularly Palestinian rejectionism destroyed Oslo yet most Westerners could not fathom Palestinian political culture’s destructive and self-destructive addiction to violence. Nevertheless, I concluded, the only solution remains a two-state solution. Critics deemed this claim contradictory.

The two-state solution remains the most logical solution for Israelis and Palestinians because, like the infirmities of old age, it beats the alternative, or in this case, the alternatives. Extremist Palestinians advocate the one-state solution, trusting that masses of Palestinian voters in a secular democratic state would overwhelm Israelis. Across the spectrum, since 1967, many right-wing Israelis have endorsed the status quo, ignoring the psychic, moral, diplomatic, military, political, and economic costs to Israel of controlling millions of hostile non-citizens. A two-state solution can take many forms, including federations with Egypt and Jordan that would mean a three-state or a one and two half-state solution. Somehow, Israel must stop governing millions of Palestinians.

A post-Oslo acceptance of the two-state solution requires launching a new Palestinian entity with low expectations and no illusions, informed by the violence the Oslo process unleashed. In fact, a sophisticated, realistic approach to a Palestinian state should build on two additional failures beyond the Oslo debacle: Ehud Barak’s hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Ariel Sharon’s undemocratic disengagement from Gaza. 

Ironically, of these three recent failures that promised peace but resulted in some form of prolonged war, only the Oslo peace process increased the Israeli death rate in the area under discussion. Israel suffered casualties steadily during its presence in Lebanon, sometimes as many as 20 to 25 soldiers annually. Since then, even including the Second Lebanon war, many fewer have died. Similarly from the start of Yasir Arafat’s renewed war against the Jewish people in 2000, more Israeli soldiers and civilians died in Gaza than the handful who died since the disengagement.

So, yes, the withdrawal from Lebanon emboldened Hizbullah and probably encouraged the Palestinians to believe they could accomplish more with terrorism than with diplomacy. And, yes, the disengagement from Gaza destroyed beautiful communities, disheartened thousands of individual patriots, launched Hamas to power, and subjected Sderot along with other communities in the Western Negev to traumatic, reprehensible bombardments. But the comparative death toll suggests that the alternative to leaving – staying – would have been more costly. The challenge, then, is to do what needs to be done more intelligently, more effectively, and less naively.

Now, many will argue that the West Bank is different, that Judea and Samaria are more integrally connected to the Jewish people than either Southern Lebanon or Gaza, and that, at this point, the rate of anti-Israeli violence is minimal. Moreover, whereas a Hamas-run Gaza can rain Kassams on a small, peripheral community like Sderot, a Hamas-run West Bank could rain more destructive missiles on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport.

Ultimately, a sober, security-minded approach responds to these valid arguments and others by starting with the assumption that clear borders shrewdly and patiently negotiated offer more security than the current mess. Those who dream of Israel’s Biblical boundaries have to acknowledge that millions more Palestinians than Jews streamed to those areas in the twentieth century and that Israel’s security barrier has formalized the demographic realities as of 2000. Given the separation, it is better for Palestinians to control their own destiny than to have Israelis trying to control them. And, especially in today’s climate, the rules of engagement between hostile neighbors are much clearer than the protocols for one nation dominating another.

Had the Gaza disengagement been handled more intelligently, Israel would have had a good example of how to proceed. Ariel Sharon claimed there would be zero-tolerance for violence, that any attacks by air, sea, or land from Gaza would be dealt with severely. After the first post-engagement Kassam flew, Israel needed to respond militarily, close the border, cut off electricity in Gaza, and retake one evacuated settlement. Had Israel responded so aggressively once, maximum twice, the situation probably would not have deteriorated.

Unlike during the Oslo years, Israel should not rush into anything. Israel should approach the two-state solution gradually, with benchmarks of progress toward peace Palestinians could follow. If that sounds uneven, condescending, and high-handed, it also acknowledges the tragic fact that following the events of 2000 to 2004, Israel is the victim and the victor. The Palestinians unleashed the violence – and lost. In the equivalent of suing for peace, they have to demonstrate their readiness to make peace – with Israel free to retreat whenever security threats or violations occur.

A two-state solution could provide moral, diplomatic, and military clarity. Borders are easier to defend when they are clear, not ambiguous. Actions are easier to justify when the moral onus is on one aggressor not a people who play the victim card as an occupied people.

Ronald Reagan, the arch enemy of Communism, negotiated with the Soviets when he saw it was in his country’s best interests to do so. His mantra throughout the negotiations, “Trust but verify” reflected the need to progress with no illusions. Oslo buried many Israelis’ illusions about the short-term prospects of a true peace with the Palestinians, or most of the Arab world. But the Olso-triggered terrorism could not kill the need for progress or the chance, eventually, for some stability. The Oslo peace process assumed good will would develop quickly among the two peoples. A new approach should assume lingering bad faith among Palestinians unless hard evidence suggests otherwise. But bad faith does not preclude enduring stability or serious progress toward a more workable solution. Israel should not withdraw for the sake of the Palestinians, but for the sake of Israel.