Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel, Right or Wrong?

The announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians were resuming their long-stalled committee talks shows that they are trying to address the challenge posed by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the end of her recent mission to the Middle East. Irving Moskowitz, the Miami businessman who sponsored the takeover of a house by Jewish settlers in an Arab neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem, also understands her challenge. He knows that it is not only Israeli and Palestinian leaders who must make the hard decisions. American Jews will have to make tough choices as well.


For Moskowitz, the choice is simple. By purchasing homes in Arab areas and installing Jewish settlers, he can potentially unravel much of what the secretary accomplished during her first visit to the region. For the American Jewish community, in particular its leadership, the challenge is this: Will they give the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton the political leeway it needs to be an honest, evenhanded broker and push the peace process forward?


With or without Moskowitz's antics, no plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can succeed unless the decision makers show political courage. Chairman Yasser Arafat must risk major rifts in the Palestinian community by taking on Hamas terrorists. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must risk alienating Israeli hard-liners by halting provocative settlement-building and offering proposals that have a chance of being accepted by the Palestinians. The Clinton administration must continue to candidly suggest what both sides should do to get peace talks back on track, even if that means risking confrontation with a portion of its domestic constituency.


Fortunately, the domestic political context of U.S. policy in the Middle East has changed in recent years. During the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, there was a profound fear of proactive American efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of Israel's supporters believed that an isolated, besieged Jewish state could not afford any disagreements with the United States, whose support was critical to the survival of the Jewish state.


But that was before Oslo, and the raised possibility that the Palestinian problem and Israeli security could be reconciled through negotiations. In mid-September, a poll showed that 84 percent of American Jews believed the United States should "apply pressure" on both Netanyahu and Arafat "to act more constructively and be more forthcoming in negotiations." And 89 percent think the United States "must be evenhanded when facilitating negotiations."


Despite this public opinion shift, some American pro-Israel activists in Washington are still out of step with their community. Knowingly or not, they are successfully perpetuating a dangerous, within-the-Beltway myth that this community expects automatic U.S. support for any Israeli position, even if it lessens America's ability to broker a peace agreement. Behind the scenes, the Jewish community is increasingly split around this issue as the debate intensifies. Whichever side succeeds in influencing policy will have a concrete impact on the future of Israel and the Middle East.


Just before Albright began her recent trip, she was urged to focus on pressing Arafat to fight terror, but to make no demands on Netanyahu. It would have been politically safer for her to do so, particularly after the twin terror attacks this summer. In contrast, 40 prominent American Jews wrote a letter asking her, for Israel's sake, to preserve her original plan for restarting peace talks even as she prodded Arafat on the terrorism issue.


To her credit, the secretary insisted first that Arafat make a 100 percent effort against the terrorist infrastructure. She then urged Israel to refrain from actions that the Palestinians perceive as provocative, such as settlement expansion and home demolitions. That is the kind of political courage that should be emulated by Middle Eastern leaders. And it should be encouraged by Americans who support Israel and the peace process whose success is essential to its long-term security.


When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the central question for American Jews should no longer be simply who is right and who is wrong about specific policies or how to guarantee that there are no gaps between the U.S. and Israeli governments. It is obvious that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are deadlocked, and it is clear that there will be disagreements about how to break the impasse. The relevant question for American Jews now becomes this: Will we support the U.S. administration when it tries to extricate both sides from their current stalemate?


When Albright said she would not return to the region unless Israeli and Palestinian leaders made tough choices, she was forcing both sides to peer into the abyss that will swallow them up unless they find ways to compromise. But if these leaders decide to step back from the edge and seek peace, it is almost inconceivable that they will get anywhere unless the United States continues to calm fears, build bridges and mediate. The administration's ability to do so will be sharply diminished if the president and secretary of state are forced to look constantly over their shoulders, fearing an adverse domestic reaction every time they try to facilitate a peace process that is clearly in Israel's interests.





Steven Spiegel teaches political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is director of the Mideast Peace Pulse Project. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.