02/27/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

"Moral Equivalency" vs. Moral Responsibility: Israel, Iran, and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Heightened rhetoric between Israel and Iran and the escalating conflict in Syria are getting increased attention in international and domestic media, competing with the Republican presidential primary contests and the New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin.

A significant body of current opinion describes Iran as an "existential "threat to Israel." Others say Israel is a more "grave threat."

A "grave" threat implies imminent dangerous action by Iran that immediately threatens Israel's existence and security. In contrast, an "existential" threat, though not necessarily "immediate," can have longer-term consequences for the security of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Mininister Ehud Barak have determined that Iran is an immediate "grave threat" to Israel because of Iran's pursuit of the production of nuclear weapons. This, then, has become the rationale for Israel to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran.

The more troubling question, however, which most media pundits seem to avoid asking, is whether a preemptive military attack by Israel would be in the best interest of the United States in the Middle East and its interests in the larger Islamic world. This is a critically relevant question because any military dispute between Israel and Iran will undoubtedly, adversely and profoundly, affect the security interests of the United States in the region.

Last week Israel announced a plan to build 600 new homes in a settlement deep inside the West Bank. The action drew prompt attention and rebukes from the Unites States and the Palestinians. The proposed settlement construction was described by Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, as "the biggest settlement construction plan in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office three years ago."

In a previous blog this month, shortly after returning from Israel where I attended and participated in the 12th Annual Herzliya Policy Conference on Israel and the Middle East, I wrote that one of the constructive steps the United States and Israel could do in their negotiations with the PLO is to publicly cease their "kabuki dance charade" concerning a "two state solution." I said then and repeat again: it is disingenuous to continue to say to the Palestinians that Israel and the United States are serious about achieving a "two state solution" when the very land required for such a two state solution is the same land on which settlements have been built -- land that now has been expanded to permit the construction of the 600 new homes mentioned above.

Almost always when an issue like this is discussed, online or in person, in light of the 64-year continuing occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, the doctrine of "moral equivalency" is invoked to blunt or deflect any criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians by the United Nations, former President Jimmy Carter or other less prominent people here in the United States. Concurrent with this, a creeping and disturbing mindset has also developed among significant segments of the American Jewish community which, while maybe not intended, has the practical effect of shielding Israel from criticism on the implied basis of: "Israel right or wrong." Consequently, any genuine third party criticism of Israel more often than not is regarded as totally unacceptable.

Regrettably, this attitude appears to have been transferred to criticism of Israel's recent actions against a new generation of Palestinians, who have foresworn violence and opted for peaceful non-violent protest against expanded settlements and pre-existing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Any criticism of Israel by other governments or prominent international third parties or persons of good will in America is dismissed as unreasonable and unfair. Israel and its defenders assert that such critics are engaged in "moral equivalency." This is because such criticism, they say, "morally equates" Israel's actions to defend itself and assure its safety and security with suicide bombings conducted against Israel by supporters of the PLO.

Unfortunately, some defenders of Israel, otherwise fair-minded people of good will, are unable or unwilling to see that the issue is not one of "moral equivalency." The issue is simply one of moral responsibility and accountability. Moral responsibility by the government and people of Israel for the consequences of their actions on the lives of generations of Palestinians as a result of six decades of occupation of major portions of internationally recognized Palestinian territory.

During my attendance and speech at the Herzliya Conference in Israel earlier this month one of the issues I beseeched my Israeli host and other attendees to very carefully consider is the potential corroding and corrupting effect that such continued occupation of Palestinian lands could have on the democratic principles of equality before the law, respect for the dignity and the rights of others that constituted the very soul of Israel when it was founded. I reminded them that it was these principles and precepts that prompted Martin Luther King, Jr. to become an early an ardent supporter of Israel as a Zionist State.

While the issues of Iran may now be front and center, depending upon whether its pursuit of nuclear weapons constitutes a "grave" or "existential" threat, the real long term issue confronting Israel and its supporters in the United States is whether Israel's current policy underlying its negotiations with the PLO over a so-called two state solution is still, today, a "viable option."

The real threat to Israel may not only be Iran. It may be the danger and risks of internal self-destruction and self-corruption by the people and government of Israel of those cherished democratic principles and precepts underlying the founding of such a great nation as the State of Israel.

This perceived threat confronting the democratic soul of Israel is not too dissimilar to that which threatened the preservation of our constitutional principles and guarantees during the presidency of George W. Bush after 9/11 and partially continued under President Obama.

Our moral challenge in America today is no less than that confronting Israel as it seeks to assure its safety and security. We must do our best to balance our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with our continued commitment and respect for the rights of all of the people in our country living under our cherished Bill of Rights.