Three Israeli and Palestinian politicians visiting the United States were in the news this week for choices they made about with whom or what they wished to associate. Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin came under fire for speaking at the Ha’aretz/New Israel Fund conference despite the participation of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was criticized for speaking at the same conference but demanding the removal of an Israeli flag from the stage as a condition for providing his remarks; and leader of the Joint List MK Ayman Odeh took heat for not meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at an office that it shares with the Jewish Agency. Taken together, each of the three incidents is a reminder that there is always a story behind the story, and that it usually involves domestic political considerations.
Let’s start with Erekat, which is the most straightforward. By most accounts, Ha’aretz had no plans to have any flags on stage at its conference, but Rivlin asked for an Israeli flag for his speech, and it remained there until Erekat requested its removal. Those who are angry about the flag’s removal think it indicates that, despite official PLO recognition of Israel, Erekat was signaling that Israel’s very existence is illegitimate in his eyes. Those who find Erekat’s demand justified retort that he is not Israeli, let alone an Israeli official, and doesn’t want to be seen as supporting the country occupying the West Bank. Whatever you think of what Erekat did, it’s fairly easy to understand why he did it. Erekat has been positioning himself for some time to take over for Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the fact that this seems to objectively be the longest of long shot possibilities, it is one that informs nearly everything that Erekat does. Having pictures splashed across Palestinian media of Erekat standing next to an Israeli flag would not do him any favors – particularly when other speakers did not have the flag next to them – and it probably wouldn’t have mitigated his problems all that much to have a Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli one. While it is perfectly understandable that Israelis were upset by his gesture given the larger issues of recognition and legitimacy involved, it is also difficult to imagine Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War going to a conference in Switzerland on U.S.-Soviet issues and consenting to speak with nothing next to him but an American flag, or for that matter Rivlin agreeing to give his speech at this conference next to a Palestinian flag.
Seguing to Rivlin, he has come under intense criticism from the Israeli right for his participation in the conference given the inclusion or attendance of organizations and figures such as Breaking the Silence and BDS champion Roger Waters. It is surprising to some that Rivlin so readily agreed to speak to the conference since in the past he has been more discerning with whom he is willing to associate, famously spurning Jimmy Carter in Israel last spring. To understand what is driving Rivlin, it is important to remember the dictum that where one stands depends on where one sits. While Rivlin has spent much of his adult life as a politician, as the president of Israel his considerations are now different as his career as an overtly political elected official is over. He does not have to cater to a voter base or worry about the Likud primary, and while he maintains a political rivalry with Prime Minister Netanyahu, his task is to present a public face of Israel, largely to foreign audiences. As the head of state rather than the head of government, Rivlin has displayed an acute awareness of the challenges besetting Israel’s image overseas and the frustrations of many Diaspora Jews. Going to the Ha’aretz conference would have been a political kiss of death for Rivlin when he was in the Knesset, but in some ways his most important political constituency now is not Israel’s voters but Israel’s supporters and critics outside of the country’s borders. Making Israel’s case to what was not going to be a fawning audience and presenting a different and more optimistic face to the world than what people get from Netanyahu was probably a relatively easy decision for Rivlin to make as president of Israel, but the outcome would have been different were he a Likud minister.
That brings us to Odeh, who requested to have his meeting with the Conference of Presidents moved to the offices of the Union for Reform Judaism in the same building in a bid to avoid having to interact with the Jewish Agency but was rebuffed. This came off as an extreme move to many American Jews given Odeh’s reputation for moderation and the largely good press he has received while on his U.S. visit, and the Conference of Presidents reacted with a strident statement of disappointment. For a politician touted as a new breed of Israeli Arab leader, this appeared to be a misstep borne out of inexperience, and that might be an accurate description of what took place but it also ignores Odeh’s primary consideration, which is his own political survival. The Jewish Agency is a primary bête noire of Israel’s Arab citizens given its role in land policies that prioritize Jews at Arabs’ expense, so Odeh’s redline makes perfect sense for a politician touring the U.S. whose goal for the trip is to give a voice and draw attention to those citizens. Put simply, Odeh would not be representing his constituents accurately were he to validate an institution in the U.S. that he shuns in Israel.
In addition, much of Odeh’s political power comes from the fact that he was the first MK able to unite Israel’s Arab parties into one united electoral list, magnifying their influence at the polls. This was not, however, an easy task, and it remains to be seen whether Hadash, Balad, Ra’am, and Ta’al will stay united for more than one election given the enormous variance between the parties in ideology, outlook, tactics, and their fractious history. While it might seem that Odeh’s political primacy would be safe in light of his newfound fame and name recognition, he has to contend with challengers within Hadash and the internal politics of the Joint List writ large, and damaging his credibility at home to curry favor with American Jewish leaders is ultimately a losing political move for him.
None of this is to judge the messages that any of these three politicians conveyed through their actions or say whether they were inappropriate or not, but just to keep in mind that politics is a complex game. The politics of foreign visits often compete with the politics of home, and each man’s future ambitions and current position are going to be much greater predictors of how they behave than the expectations and condemnations of their critics. That all politics is local generally explains what goes on in the world, but in Israel this often applies to an even greater degree.