The unrest in the Middle East that has seen revolutions in two countries and street protests in at least five others appears to have hardened the views of American Jews — those who believe an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty is even more important now and those who insist the turmoil has made a land-for-peace deal even riskier.
“A change like this has given more urgency to everybody’s pre-existing political views,” said Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy at J Street, a progressive pro-Israel voice in the U.S. “I don’t think anyone’s political views have changed in the last month.”
He said these events have only made it abundantly “clear and evident that if Israel is going to be part of a democratic Middle East, it has to make peace.”
But asked whether this is really the most propitious time to negotiate a treaty, Susskind replied: “Now is the moment we have and that moment is slipping away. We’re not in a place where a two-state solution will magically become more attainable. We need to take the opportunity we have now to achieve a lasting peace with security for Israel. … I don’t think Egypt is about to become another Iran, but rather it will have a democratic government that will keep its treaty with Israel.”
But Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said he is not so sure of what the future will bring and thus suggests that Israel “tread carefully and slowly and assess how the transition in Egypt goes, see who the players are and who will be responsible for relations with Israel and with Washington. All of this is unknown and we need to know more before we move ahead.”
In a phone interview Tuesday as he stood on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Mariaschin added: “In the midst of uncertainty and chaos, caution is the best guidepost for moving forward. Those who advise that rushing in is the best prescription for a peace that will hold are misguided.”
On the other hand, Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said the turmoil in the region only “underscores one of the reasons we insist that time is of the essence and that the right thing to do is to redouble our efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians.”
He said the unrest is bringing about “instability in the Middle East” and that an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty would help to “strengthen the moderates … not only in the Palestinian camp but in the Arab world at large.” And, Nir suggested, it would also allow Arabs to put aside the issue of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians and concentrate on their grievances against their own tyrannical rulers.
Nir said he was recently in the Middle East and met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who told him the problem was “not a lack of negotiations but a lack of decisions.” Fayyad, Nir said, blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the stalemate in talks, saying Netanyahu “has to decide whether he wants a viable Palestinian state and whether he is willing to negotiate in earnest.”
Shoshana Bryen, however, puts the blame for the breakdown in peace talks squarely in the court of the Palestinians. Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said she has found that each time Israeli and Palestinian negotiators appear close to a deal, “the Palestinians invariably blame Israel or America and say it’s not good enough and walk away.”
She pointed out that the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, announced his resignation late last month after an investigation into the leak of the Palestine Papers — more than 1,600 papers documenting years of secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — disclosed that the leak was in his office. He expressed regret that the papers were “stolen from my office” and then “tampered with” to make it appear the Palestinians were offering unprecedented concessions for peace.
“He is resigning because it appears he is telling the Americans and Israelis one story about what the Palestinians are willing to do and yet telling his own people a different story,” Bryen said. “He has no credibility. He is telling his people that they will all have the right of return to Israel, that those of you living in poverty in Lebanon are doing so because of the damn Jews. The official Palestinian map has no Israel on it. At no point were the Palestinian leaders telling their people that they weren’t going to get 100 percent. So if it’s true that they were saying moderate things to the Israelis during talks, they were not preparing their people for that moderation.”
“The Palestinians are in the middle of a civil war, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas said elections would be held by September but Hamas [which controls the Gaza Strip] said no,” Bryen noted. “Jinsa believes that under the present circumstances a Palestinian state now would be undemocratic and a threat to Israel and possibly become another Iranian outpost.”
She added that under certain circumstances in the future, a peace treaty might be a good idea.
But Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said it would never be possible to negotiate peace with the Palestinians because their standards are different from the West’s.
“You can’t expect them to use language the way we do,” she said. “When they sign a treaty with those they consider an infidel – and everyone who is not a Muslim is considered an infidel – it’s worthless. As a matter of fact, they are admonished not to observe it; it goes against their Islamic doctrine.”
On the other hand, Alan Elsner, a spokesman for The Israel Project, said his organization believes the Palestinians “should come back to the peace table without delay and without preconditions. … You can’t pick your moments and say this is a good time. Anytime is good for making peace and anytime is bad for not making peace. It’s absurd to say that now is a bad time because tomorrow might be even worse. What are we waiting for? A voice from the sky to say this is the time? If they don’t try, they won’t achieve anything. I don’t see how waiting improves things.”
That might be right in principle, according to David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, “but in reality it is going to be a steep uphill climb, and right now it’s even steeper than usual because Israel has been shaken by recent events and doesn’t yet know how it will pan out.
“The Palestinians are now calling for elections, they have their eyes on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, there is the aftermath of the Palestine Paper leaks, and I’m not sure if they see this moment any more optimistically than the Israelis do. So in a perfect world, of course now is the time. I wish it were. But analytically, for the players to come together now and move this forward could be even tougher than usual.”
For Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, “this is the worst possible time” to resume peace talks.
“Bibi [Netanyahu] is begging Abbas to negotiate and Abbas has made it crystal clear that he is not interested in negotiations,” he said. “He continues to promote violence and hatred against Jews in his media and schools. And now it has become even more clear that even if Israel made a deal with an Arab dictator like Abbas, you don’t know who is coming into power the next day to abrogate the deal.”
He noted that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said Israel “has never had more leverage vis-a-vis the Palestinians and never had more responsible Palestinian partners.” Therefore, Friedman called on Israel to “disentangle itself from the Arabs’ story as much as possible” by making peace with the Palestinians at a time when Arabs throughout the region are finding their voice.
“There is a huge storm coming, Israel,” he wrote. “Get out of the way.”
Klein said Friedman should instead be “chastising Abbas for not doing anything for peace.” He noted that two Israeli prime ministers — Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert — have made generous offers to the Palestinians without success.
“The reason why is that the Palestinians don’t want peace but rather Israel’s destruction,” he said.
But an Israeli who said he understands Israel’s need for a peace treaty with the Palestinians told the national executive committee of the Anti-Defamation League last week in Palm Beach, Fla., that he would prefer to wait because of the instability in Egypt.
“A Palestinian state might find itself taken over by Hamas just as it took over the Gaza Strip in 2007,” explained Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “So we would then be sharing Jerusalem with Hamas — and that is a nightmare scenario.”
Halevi observed that Netanyahu has been accused in the past of “missing opportunities” for peace, but the cautious approach Netanyahu is taking now is just what is needed.
The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said he agreed with Halevi that if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt with a radical Islamic ideology, it would present an “existential threat to the Jewish people.”
“What we will need in the months ahead is something we don’t have — unity of the Jewish people,” he said.
In a later interview, he added that he believes “a majority of the American Jewish community understands if Israel is cautious” about making peace with the Palestinians at this moment.
In the meantime, he said, the Palestinians should focus on “building their economy and strengthening their investment in the institutions of civility. This is their opportunity to be creative and to take the initiatives that should have been done in Egypt and Tunisia.”