These past few weeks have been trying ones, here at home and in Israel.
Many of our North American communities have been battered by devastating weather. Our thoughts are with the victims and we continue to work closely with our congregations in the affected regions. Please check the URJ Disaster Relief page for updates and, if you wish, to make a donation. Together, the entire Reform Movement prays for the welfare of all those impacted by these terrible tragedies. May God grant them comfort and healing in the days, weeks and months to come.
And while some of our communities in North America fight physical storms, our brothers and sisters in Israel fight political ones. Despite its military strength, Israel is a small and vulnerable state, and is now facing especially difficult times. The United Nations will vote in September on whether or not to recognize Palestinian statehood, and if the resolution passes, it will be a distressing sign of Israel’s isolation on the international stage. Uprisings throughout the Arab world create hope for democracy and change, but could also pose serious threats to Israel’s security. And Iran continues its efforts to develop nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel and the world.
Against this backdrop, we have had five tumultuous days of meetings and speeches from President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace. President Obama spoke once to the State Department and once to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC and before a joint session of Congress; and the President and Prime Minister met in the White House last Friday.
(Prime Minister Netanyahu also met with a small group of Jewish leaders during the AIPAC Conference, a meeting attended by the Union’s President-designate Rabbi Rick Jacobs.)
There have been no end of commentaries on these developments, but I would like to offer a few reactions of my own.
In his two speeches, the President expressed in the clearest possible terms the unshakable support of the United States government for the State of Israel (and in some cases went well beyond what had previously been said by him or previous administrations). He said for the first time that a Palestinian state must be a demilitarized state. He insisted that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people. He warned the Palestinians against bringing their statehood resolution to the UN. He expressed deep concern about the Hamas-Fatah pact. He affirmed that peace could not be imposed from the outside but must be agreed upon by the parties.
It is difficult to imagine, in fact, a more ringing endorsement by the President of America’s traditional support for Israel. This support was obscured, in some measure, by the bizarre claim that the President had called for a return to 1967 borders; such a step would indeed be impossible and unacceptable, but the President said no such thing, as was clear from his call for secure and recognized borders arrived at through negotiation and mutually agreed exchanges of land. As noted by Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, a statement that negotiations start with discussions of the 1967 borders is very different from saying that that is where they end up.
The central premise of the President’s message was that if peace is to come, it will be through the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a Jewish state. The principle of a two-state solution, of course, has been supported by the last three U.S. administrations and by both major parties; it is also the policy of the State of Israel. The Reform Movement has supported a two-state solution since the early 1990s.
The President also deserves our appreciation for his current efforts to convince our European allies to oppose the UN resolution on Palestinian statehood. Both of his speeches, which affirmed Palestinian rights to a state of their own, have been well received by our allies and should assist in these efforts. As noted, passage of the statehood resolution could seriously undermine Israel’s diplomatic standing.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s powerful statement to Congress expressed gratitude to the United States government for its support and promised painful compromises for peace. The Prime Minister reviewed the policies of his government and gave special emphasis to security threats that Israel is now confronting. He spoke of Hamas’ commitment to terror and to Israel’s destruction; of the need to confront the dangers posed by Iran to the international community; and of the possibility that democratic stirrings in the Arab world could, if they take a wrong turn, lead to hostile governments rather than democratic ones. These threats are real and deeply troubling. The need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not less important on their account but more important; still, they remind us that true security must be an essential component of any peace agreement.
Is there a possibility now of genuine negotiations and progress toward peace? I am far from certain. I believe that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is generally moderate in outlook, but is surrounded by mostly unreasonable voices; the presence of Hamas makes progress far more doubtful still. Nonetheless, we know that every effort must be made. Israel has pledged yet again to do its part, and the Administration has pledged to help move the process forward. We are thankful for these efforts because President Obama is surely right that the current situation is unsustainable, and if peace does not come, Israel’s situation will be more grave 5 years from now than it is today. For that reason, my hope is that if the Palestinian Authority is not forthcoming, Israel’s leaders will take what steps they can take to separate themselves from the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
In the meantime, our task as North American Jews is to offer Israel our love and support; to do everything possible to deepen the friendship between Israel and her most important ally, the United States of America, keeping in mind always that the goal of Israel advocacy is for American – and Canadian – support of Israel to be broad, inclusive, and bi-partisan; and to send the message that Israel’s fate rests not only in the hands of her citizens but in the hands of Jews everywhere.
As I wrote on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, let us pray, today and everyday, that peace and redemption will come to Israel’s borders and that harmony will hallow Jerusalem’s gates, bi’meheira u’viyameinu—speedily, and in our day.
Eric H. Yoffie