May 27, 2011

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This past week I have received numerous phone calls and e-mails or have been asked to react or respond to questions: What’s going on in Washington? What is Obama doing? Why is he selling out Israel? Did you hear Netanyahu? What do you think? And so, though I had originally planned to speak about Jewish War Veterans on this Memorial Day Weekend, I feel it is important to address this issue of “What’s next for Israel?”

Many are confused, dismayed, angry and even scared. To the hyperventilators my suggestion is that it is time to step back and breathe. Recognize that this is part of an ongoing attempt to bring about peace in Israel. And there will be upset from all sides, if they are ever to come to an accommodation with one another. That is the essence of compromise. Keep in mind that we only are privy to what is being said publicly, but not privately.

And isn’t it wonderful how everyone has an opinion! We hear from those who wish to exalt the President as the savior, the world leader who will cobble together disparate groups to find a common solution and those who wish to depict him as the newest embodiment of Amalek, the destroyer of the Jews. No one is fully objective. We all have biases. I include myself. But people have asked me what I think, so let me first issue a disclaimer: I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I am not a diplomat, nor do I have specific academic credentials that inform my comments. God has not told me how to figure this all out. What I bring to the discussion is insight from having been to Israel, listened to many smart people, read a lot and ahavat Yisrael, love for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. However, I am not so arrogant as to believe that I am right and others are wrong. I can only share my perspective. With that as background what are we talking about?

The latest episode on this subject begins with a series of statements by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama’s came in the forms of an address to the world on his views regarding the Middle East, inclusive of thoughts for the next round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, followed by an address to AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major lobbying group for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Obama, reacted to his first speech, then made two presentations of his own, first to AIPAC followed by a masterful oration to the United States Congress.

Let me begin with President Obama’s presentations. My analysis is primarily my own, but is also informed by reading the reactions of others. Yesterday I had a unique opportunity, by virtue of the fact that I am currently an officer in the CCAR, to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, President Obama’s key advisor on the Middle East, as he was to the two previous administrations. Though our focus tonight is primarily Israel, we need to remember that his initial address was to the world and discussion of Israel came in the context of major changes occurring: the death of Osama Bin Laden, the demonstrations and revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and throughout parts of the Arab world.

Israel came at the end of the speech. The President shared what many of us feel, that both sides have contributed to the impasse and that perhaps now IS the time to push the sides to negotiate. The recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is problematic. He clearly expressed great concern about Hamas, which has never accepted Israel. If they are to be party to this, then they must unequivocally renounce violence and reverse their position. Whether they can be trusted is another story, but negotiations can go nowhere otherwise.

I know that in diplomacy, each word and nuance is analyzed and overanalyzed, but what I heard contained much that I’ve heard for years. He called for two states each with clear borders. Those borders would be based on the pre-1967 borders, but with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Much has been made of the Presidents reference to the 1967 borders, as if he was saying that Israel had to return to precisely what was the reality then, untenable, indefensible borders, which would not take into account the almost 650,000 Jews who now live beyond the Green line, the old border. But that was not what was said and was subsequently clarified. Mutually agreed upon land swaps would mean that many, if not most of those living beyond the Green Line, primarily in the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be in Israel, though some of the settlements would not, and in return Palestine would receive other land. From Israel’s perspective I’m guessing this would probably include what they always claimed was not a        de-facto future border, currently outlined by a security fence and wall. Palestinians would attain one of their most basic goals, to have clear territory that is their own. The concept of a contiguous State between the West bank and Gaza is a challenge, but I am aware of discussions regarding a roadway and/or tunnels that might be involved.

What Israel requires is security. In his initial speech, the President said, “Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.” Its other gain as far as I am concerned is to be relieved of the horrific administration of “occupied territory,” which is not only a financial drain, but has placed Israelis in challenging moral positions, forcing compromise on essential Jewish and democratic values.

Jerusalem and the fate of so-called refugees will come later. This is a change in strategy from previous attempts of settlement. The hope is that by building agreement in the first area, this can then be the basis for moving forward on the other two, which are more emotional, but with creativity can be addressed IF there is a will. What President Obama seeks is “A viable Palestine and a secure Israel.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted to the President’s proposal, first in a meeting at the White House, then at AIPAC and Congress. He was very effective and eloquent. While initially he seemed to bridle at the mention of the ’67 borders in what I believe was a necessary response for the right wing in his own government, his later comments were much more supportive of the proposals, as he staked out his position.

He pointed out that Middle East turmoil has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with corruption, intolerance and poverty in the Arab world. The shadow of Iran and its influence, not only as it effects Israel but the entire world needs to be confronted. He recognized that freedom may be possible in Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with whom Israel has peace agreements, but only if their economies are supported. He stressed his desire for lasting peace with the Palestinians and his support for a 2 State solution, which he only embraced in recent years. And he repeated his willingness to make painful compromises, reaffirming ancient claims on Judea and Samaria, which might be sacrificed if need be. As a positive harbinger of the future, he cited the growth and modernization of the West Bank Palestinian economy in recent years with Israel removing literal barriers and roadblocks.

Speaking to Congress, he raised the question: “Why has peace eluded Israel?” His answer: “Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it…You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state…They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.  And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists.  And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.”

Just as he has accepted the idea of a Palestinian State, he called upon Mahmoud Abbas to publicly say, “I will accept a Jewish State” and then there can be progress. An obvious challenge for him is that Hamas, as it is currently constituted, is no partner for peace.

To my ears, his comments on the border and the status of those living beyond the Green Line, as well as the absolute need for security did not essentially differ from the President’s. I know, “the devil is in the details.” Though he spoke of his approach to Jerusalem and the refugee issue, he did not say that they had to be on the table as well initially; ultimately, “yes,” but initially, “no.”

Then come all of the analysis by friends and foes alike. The critics of President Obama’s position point out that land for peace has not worked, with Gaza as a prime example. Others argue that not addressing Jerusalem and the refugees is like planting a bomb waiting to go off. And as long as Hamas is involved, there can be no trust or settlement. By accepting the outlines of President Obama’s suggestions, Israel would be putting itself into a weaker position and would have to hope for the best.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, highly critical of the President and questioning his basic support of Israel writes, “What, then, would a pro-Israel president do? He would tell Palestinians that there is no right of return. He would make the reform of the Arab mindset toward Israel the centerpiece of his peace efforts. He would outline hard and specific consequences should Hamas join the government. Such a vision could lay the groundwork for peace. What Mr. Obama offered is a formula for war, one that he will pursue in a second term, assuming, of course, that he gets one.”

In an article circulated by “We are for Israel” a centrist group of rabbis, led by our friend Rabbi Micky Boyden in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress was analyzed. In particular the initial disharmony between the two leaders was bridged, as the Prime Minister acknowledged all of the support the President Obama has provided on multiple levels. He also embraced many of the ideas offered by the President, though offering different approaches and interpretations of the situation. Where he could have been a hawk, he chose not to be.

Listening to Dennis Ross provided insight and context. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, all was spoken of in the context of an unshakable and iron-clad commitment for Israel. This includes providing Israel with the military edge, such as the new Iron Dome missile system, which has successfully shot down incoming rockets in flight. The President’s comments spoke of security arrangements, no terrorism, no arms, border security and what would be a mutually agreed upon adjustment period. The bottom line U.S. position is that it will not leave Israel vulnerable and must ensure that Israel can defend itself by itself.

Perhaps most significantly, the address was in response to efforts to delegitimize Israel internationally. With no movement on the diplomatic front, there is every reason to believe that European countries will vote in favor of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State, which is likely to be proposed and approved at the United Nations this Fall. However, without the support of the European countries, it will be seen merely as an irritant. President Obama made his proposal, not only prior to AIPAC, but also on the eve of his European travel. He is currently garnering support for his position in Europe, which is crucial for Israel.

The new realities of the Middle East also require that the general populations be addressed. In Egypt, as long as Mubarek was willing to support peace, the treaty was strong. I believe the treaty is still secure for the time being, but public opinion has to be wooed. No movement on negotiations is not in Israel’s best interest. This is true in Palestine as well, where their Facebook generation can perhaps be reached. Let the Palestinians be perceived as the intransigents if need be. The recent demonstrators on Israel’s borders could be an omen for the future.

Friends, I wish I could tell you that all will be well, that I have absolute faith in the proposals that have come from Washington. I cannot. But I can tell you that leaving matters as they are is no solution either. I do have faith that this President and the administration and Congress are wholeheartedly supportive of Israel and its security. Nothing else has proven effective so far. Perhaps these new ideas will jump-start the stagnant process. We continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.