A meeting on Tuesday between US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and right-wing MKs turned into a tense stand-off over the continued incarceration of convicted Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard and US efforts to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Shapiro met with 16 members of the Land of Israel Caucus, a caucus of some 40 MKs who either openly oppose or are deeply skeptical about land concessions in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The discussion, which was closed to the press, took place in “an atmosphere of respect and listening,” a source who was present at the meeting told The Times of Israel. But Shapiro also heard a great deal of criticism about American policy.
Shapiro started the meeting with a discussion of the American position on the US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, the policy issue in which the Obama administration and right-wing MKs diverge most markedly.
“Nobody criticized what the Americans believe [on the Palestinian issue], but some said that these opinions don’t really fit reality, and they brought examples such as the [2006 Palestinian] elections they forced on us that brought Hamas [to power in Gaza] and more terrorism,” the source said.
The MKs nevertheless asked, “Is it right to force Israel to do things that are dangerous, and to condition [America’s] friendship with Israel on our doing those things?”
While the American ambassador did not suggest that American-Israeli ties were dependent on Israel’s actions in the peace talks, “people connected [Shapiro’s] gentle language with other American statements, such as what [US Secretary of State] John Kerry said in Germany” – a reference to a warning from Kerry that failure to achieve peace could shore up those who call for a boycott of Israel.
Shapiro insisted during the meeting that a final peace treaty resulting from the talks would “protect Israel’s security and would be good for Israel,” according to sources familiar with the conversation.
But MKs were skeptical.
“How can we trust you?” demanded MK David Rotem, of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party. “When have you stood by us in the past?” he asked.
Similar complaints were heard from MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), who said the MKs with whom the American administration disagreed were nevertheless elected by the Israeli public, and that imposing American views on them undermined Israeli democracy.
MK Nissan Slomiansky, whose Jewish Home party categorically rejects land concessions that lie at the heart of the US-backed talks, told the ambassador the American policy was tantamount to “rape,” insisting that Israel was being forced into the talks against its will. “That’s not friendship,” he said.
“I think [Shapiro] was surprised at the diversity of MKs, that there were members there from Yesh Atid and Shas as well, and not just Likud or Jewish Home,” said a source.
But the most tense moments came when the conversation turned to the fate of Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in 1985 on charges of spying for Israel and remains in an American prison serving a life sentence.
Shapiro defended Pollard’s continued incarceration, reiterating his statements in recent weeks on the issue, including noting that Pollard had been convicted in court.
“Don’t sell us unintelligent arguments,” retorted MK Orit Strock (Jewish Home), who co-chairs the caucus together with MK Yariv Levin (Likud). Strock reportedly said the MKs were aware that the administration had the power to release Pollard at will.
MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) said the American government was singling out Pollard in a way that suggested an anti-Semitic motive.
The meeting with right-wing MKs followed a meeting last week with the left-leaning Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict. That meeting, held on February 18 in the Knesset, was attended by 15 MKs from the 40-member caucus.
“At the ambassador’s request, and unlike the Land of Israel Caucus, we didn’t leak from the meeting either criticism or praise,” noted caucus chair MK Hilik Bar (Labor).
Bar criticized the leaks from Tuesday’s meeting. “The far right continues to cross these lines and to harm the delicate ties we have with the Americans. It continues to attack the ambassador of our closest friend without any restraint or sense of proportion. It’s continuing to shoot Israel in the foot,” he insisted.