Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was famous for saying that it was more important what the Jews did than what the non-Jewish world said about what they were doing.
There was, and still is, a great deal of truth to that proposition. When it comes to matters of self-defense and building your own home, there are times when true leaders must simply say to the devil with hypocritical world opinion and do what must be done.
But there have been times when the opposite is true. When it comes to diplomacy between the State of Israel, its ally the United States and the Palestinian Arabs, what the Israelis actually try to do to achieve peace often matters far less than how the rest of the world perceives those actions. Like it or not, Israel and its supporters are about to play out this same frustrating scenario again.
The much-ballyhooed Middle East peace conference sponsored by the Bush administration set to take place next month in Annapolis, Md., has sent Israel's leaders, as well as those of the Palestinian Authority, into overdrive as they attempt to position themselves in advance of the conclave. Hovering over both Jerusalem and the P.A. headquarters in Ramallah is what happened the last time the United States sponsored such an event.
The 2000 Precedent
In July of 2000, the Clinton administration was desperate to revive the failed Oslo process, and invited both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., to go the last mile to achieve a settlement.
Clinton seemed, even at the time, to be more focused on his desire for a Nobel Peace Prize as his presidential legacy than on the realities on the ground. But his desire for a settlement was real. So was that of Barak, who threw all of Israel's bargaining chips on the table and offered the Palestinians more than any other Israeli government had ever done: a state on virtually all of the West Bank with a share of redivided Jerusalem to serve as its capital. But despite Clinton's pleas, Arafat refused to take yes for an answer.
Two months later, Arafat's response to Barak's peace offer morphed from verbal intransigence to open combat as he launched a second "intifada" -- a terrorist war of attrition that sought to bring Israel to its knees. Though it cost Israel more than a thousand dead and far more for the Palestinians, the intifada eventually failed.
In the long run, it mattered less what Barak actually did at Camp David than the lies that were told about it afterward.
In September 2000, Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak's foreign minister, told me that as bad as the Camp David fiasco had been, at least it showed the world that it was the Israelis who wanted peace and the Palestinians the ones who had chosen war. Never again, he said, would Israel be labeled as the fomenter of violence.
But he could not have been more wrong.
A post-Camp David Palestinian propaganda offensive sought to edit the Israeli offer out of the history books. Despite the fact that Clinton backed Israel's account of Arafat's responsibility, the Palestinian big lie worked. Few media accounts of the conflict placed the intifada firmly in a context of Arab rejectionism.
Since then, the much-publicized opinions of people like David Malley, a minor Clinton-administration functionary, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, who backed the false Palestinian account of Camp David, have managed to transform the discussion about the event from a settled fact into a faux historical dispute in which both sides are treated as equally culpable. In the long run, it mattered less what Barak actually did at Camp David than the lies that were told about it afterward.
All of this explains much of the activity of both the Israelis and the Palestinians prior to Annapolis.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem as desperate to promote the equally illusory chances of Israeli-Palestinian peace as Clinton was more than seven years ago. Their goal is to distract the Arab world and domestic critics from the war in Iraq.
That leaves Israeli Prime Minister Olmert frantic to avoid the impression that he will be the one to cause Annapolis to fail. So Olmert has tacked left, pumping up the idea that P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine peace partner and allowed a close associate to float the idea that another Jerusalem division scheme will be part of a proposed settlement.
But Abbas still has plenty of reasons to avoid a deal that he knows he can't get Palestinians (especially those that back his Hamas rivals who control Gaza) to accept. And he also understands that he can always count on anti-Zionist agitprop to bail him out.
The administration's hunger for a diplomatic triumph must not serve as an excuse for pressure on Olmert to make concessions.
But the probability of diplomatic failure at Annapolis pales before the danger of far worse repercussions if this turns into a repeat of the disaster of 2000. And that's where Israel's perennially divided supporters come in. While the very legitimacy of pro-Israel advocacy is increasingly under fire as a result of "The Israel Lobby" controversy, silence about the summit is exactly what is not needed.
The broad-based coalition of Jews and non-Jews that supports Israel here needs more than ever to make it clear to the Bush administration that it must not allow a repeat of Camp David 2000. The administration's hunger for a diplomatic triumph must not serve as an excuse for pressure on Olmert to make concessions, especially when there seems little, if any, chance that they will be reciprocated.
No Immunity from Attacks
As was the case with Barak, Olmert's willingness to embrace far reaching concessions will not protect Israel from post-summit attacks, both verbal and physical, from those who will never make peace at any price.
Since Palestinian refusal to give up on the right of return makes real progress unlikely, we can expect that Israel's foes will still be hoping to parlay the inevitable failure of Annapolis into momentum for a renewed assault on Israel's legitimacy as well as that of the pro-Israel movement here.
As such, now is exactly the time that Jewish groups as well as Christian supporters of Israel need to speak up, not to oppose the summit or diplomacy itself, but against American strong-arm tactics employed against Israel to ensure either that the meeting takes place or to guarantee some sort of result.
Enthusiasm for peace is understandable, but rhetoric that paints a misleading portrayal of Israeli unwillingness to compromise its security as an "obstacle" to peace today will undoubtedly play a part in post-Annapolis revisionist propaganda.
What both the administration and Jewish left-wingers who are eager for Rice to wield a big stick at Israel's expense must remember is that the blame for a summit failure is not an intellectual parlor game but, as Clinton's Camp David folly proved, a vicious battle whose price may eventually be paid in Jewish blood.