U.S. Jewish Leadership Understands Mideast Reality

U.S. Jewish Leadership Understands Mideast Reality

In responding to Gary Rosenblatt’s column (“Frustration with Israel is Growing Here at Home,” Jan. 8), Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor accuses American Jews and our leaders (“Why Israel Is Frustrated With American Jewish Leaders,” Jan. 29) of “only listening to marginal voices in Israel” and “missing the big picture.” Steinberg is wrong on both counts.

What is the big picture on the Palestinian issue that American Jewish leadership is missing, according to Steinberg? Is it that Israel’s Palestinian interlocutors are corrupt and rejectionist, and that any peace plan must take into account the reality of being surrounded by Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Assad, Iran and others? The truth is that American Jews understand this precarious situation quite well, and would never encourage or expect Israel to take imprudent risks to its fundamental security.

We also understand that Israel’s Palestinian interlocutors are deeply flawed. In the 2013 Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes, fully 75 percent of our community expressed the opinion that Palestinian leaders are not serious about pursuing peace with Israel. We know full well that former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert made far-reaching peace proposals to Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, which did not receive the responses they deserved.

At the same time, the Pew survey found — and this is the statistic that decision-makers in Jerusalem ought to be most concerned about — 48 percent of U.S. Jews believe Netanyahu’s government is not serious about pursuing peace with the Palestinians; 38 percent think it is serious. Keep in mind, too, that the government in 2013 was less right-wing than the current one. At that time Tzipi Livni, a political centrist, was in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians. One has to wonder what the percentages would look like today. 

Is this perception based on listening to “marginal voices” in Israel only? Hardly. Forget about Netanyahu’s political opponents who, it can be argued, have personal self-interest in criticizing the current government’s policies. Many senior members of Israel’s military and intelligence services have sharply condemned the government’s lack of initiative in trying to advance the two-state solution, while warning that its policies may lead to a collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Such a development would bring severe security challenges in its wake.

Clearly, achieving a conflict-ending peace agreement with the Palestinians that resolves final borders, security arrangements, refugees, the status of settlements and Jerusalem is a bridge too far at this time. And it is likely to be unrealistic for a long time to come.

But that does not mean Israel should refrain from taking action in partnership with Palestinian leadership that will preserve a two-state solution on the ground. Netanyahu’s public acceptance of Palestinian national self-determination, starting with his Bar Ilan speech, is important.  However, rhetorical support for two states is not sufficient. Concrete measures are required. 

First and foremost, as many mainstream (not marginal) voices in Israel long have urged, Israel’s settlement policy needs to reflect a commitment to a future two-state solution. This at least means curtailing expansion beyond the settlement blocs, and considering encouragement of voluntary relocation inside Israel. These steps would make a future large-scale relocation of Jewish settlers — should the political stars align for an agreement — somewhat less traumatic. Such a commitment also entails creating conditions that will enhance Palestinian economic development, not impede it. Not doing more to work with former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in this arena doing his period of leadership (2007-13) was an enormous missed opportunity for Israel and the international community. But there is still much that can and should be done today to solidify an infrastructure that could sustain a Palestinian state.

Rosenblatt stressed that, regardless of how we feel about particular Israeli government policies, American Jews have an obligation to show support for the Jewish state and to defend her against unfair and strident attacks. I wholeheartedly agree. Here Steinberg belittles our community’s efforts to confront the BDS movement, calling it “largely invisible and very timid.” In reality, the Israel Action Network, established by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs some five years ago, has been at the forefront of robust efforts to combat Israel’s delegitimization throughout American civil society. Its methods and research have provided valuable direction not only to Israeli leaders, but also to Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

As previously stated, Steinberg accuses American Jewish leadership, inaccurately in my judgment, of elevating marginal voices in Israel. Ironically, he commits the same alleged offense by implying that we provide legitimacy to Jewish Voice for Peace and other BDS-supporting groups. Nothing could be further from the truth. These groups are firmly outside the Jewish communal consensus.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, CNN host Fareed Zakaria asked Netanyahu what the prime minister wanted as his legacy. The response:  “I would like to be remembered as the protector of Israel. That’s enough for me. Protect Israel.”

I couldn’t help but think back some two decades to a gathering in New York City sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations soon after Netanyahu had defeated Shimon Peres by a razor-thin margin in the 1996 election. Those in the American Jewish community who had opposed the Oslo Accords were thrilled to receive a new prime minister they believed would put an end to negotiations with Arafat and the PLO. There was a decidedly anti-Oslo mood in the audience.  Gary Rubin, z”l, who at the time was director of Americans for Peace Now, asked Netanyahu what message he might give to the Palestinians to reassure them that their aspirations also would be taken into account. The prime minister snapped back — prompting wild applause by the Oslo opponents — that his sole mission was to take care of the Jewish state’s security, not the needs of the Palestinians. 

What many Israelis and American Jews recognize is that the security of Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people also requires a genuine commitment to work with the Palestinians and international community now to preserve the two-state solution and to strive over the long term for an eventual resolution of the conflict.

Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and currently serves as an advisor to the Israel Policy Forum. 

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