An Open Letter to ADL Leader Abe Foxman: A Response to Obama’s Critics on Israeli-Arab Peace

Dear Abe, You’ve been at the forefront of American Jewish criticism of President Obama’s renewed push for Israeli-Arab peace. After a recent meeting with the President along with 15 other Jewish leaders, you confessed that you continue “to feel uncomfortable … Read More

By / August 1, 2009

Dear Abe,

You’ve been at the forefront of American Jewish criticism of President Obama’s renewed push for Israeli-Arab peace. After a recent meeting with the President along with 15 other Jewish leaders, you confessed that you continue “to feel uncomfortable with the assumptions that underlie President Obama’s approach” to Israel and the Middle East. 

You’ve charged that President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is being conducted “at Israel’s expense.” For Obama, you say, “there is a need for the US to demonstrate that it can be tough with Israel to win back credibility with Muslims. We are seeing it already on the settlement issue…”

But being tough on Netanyahu about settlements is not at “Israel’s expense.” It is a blessing to Israel, given the grave threat which many Israeli military and political leaders have said the settlements pose to Israel’s security, to the very possibility of a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians, and to Israel’s ability to remain a democratic Jewish state.   For the last eight years, we’ve had a president who recklessly squandered American prestige.   He had no credibility to broker an Israeli-Arab accommodation.   He made little more than token efforts to do so, when not trumpeting his outright opposition to negotiations with Syria, despite the unanimous advice of Israel’s intelligence and military brass, and its political leadership.  An American president who has regained the confidence of the Arab and Muslim worlds is quite simply a strategic asset to Israel.   American pressure over settlements is an investment in Israel’s future, a gift to the Zionist project.

Nor does pressure need to be applied simultaneously and in equal doses to satisfy some artificial notion of even-handedness.   As Larry Derfner points out in the Jerusalem Post, “The Palestinian Authority has been cracking down on Hamas for a long while, it kept the West Bank miraculously quiet during Operation Cast Lead, it’s enforcing the law in city after city… If the PA wasn’t giving us peace and we were giving it land – we’d be right to demand that Obama put all the pressure on the Palestinians and none on us.  But the fact is that Abbas and the PA are giving us about as much peace as they’re capable of, while we aren’t planning on giving them an inch; instead, we’re thinking only about how much more conquered land Obama will let us build on.”

You’ve said that President Obama’s “notion that we have to pressure Israel to show our bona fides to the Arabs is to buy into their distorted version of history.”   You’ve accused the president of ignoring the history of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.   But such criticisms stand reality on its head. Obama understands all too well why past peace efforts have failed.  His new way is designed to overcome the errors and missteps of the past.  By adopting a regional approach, he is more likely to gain wide Arab backing for historic Palestinian compromises on Jerusalem and refugees, issues which resonate throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.   By enlisting the help of Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he stands a better chance of bringing about a unified Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government that will hew to the international and Arab consensus:  a government that will have both the will and the wherewithal to honor its commitments under a peace accord with Israel.

Obama recognizes that the US cannot help forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians while allowing Syria and Iran to continue to stoke Hezbollah and Hamas extremism. While Bush added fuel to the fires of Arab and Muslim radicalism, Obama is cutting off their oxygen supply, sapping Hezbollah’s political power and reinforcing the impetus towards pragmatism in Hamas.  Obama is finally ending the practice, perfected under Bush, of saying one thing–whether about settlements or the president’s commitment to help negotiate an accord–and then doing something else. 

You hold up President Bush’s “enunciation of the need for a Palestinian state, the road map, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the Annapolis process in 2007” as having “provided opportunities for progress toward peace if the Palestinians were truly interested.”  You highlight what “Israel has done in recent years to advance peace:  Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000, its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, also in 2000, and its disengagement from Gaza were all steps upon which there could have been building toward peace.”  Instead, you conclude, “the Palestinians responded with rejection, suicide bombs and kidnappings, extremist politics and rockets.”

But this Manichean narrative of righteous Israelis and evil Palestinians – the stock-in-trade of right-wing hasbarah – is a cartoon version of what went wrong, ignoring true causes and effects. Annapolis did not fail because the Palestinians refused to accept another “generous Israeli offer,” but because President Bush did nothing to help the parties bridge the gaps, failing to apply diplomatic tools to encourage their agreement to a US-proposed compromise, as President Carter successfully did with Egypt and Israel.   Similarly, Bush did nothing to hold either party accountable for their commitments under the Road Map, even after promising to “ride herd” on both as he left the company of Sharon and Abbas at Aqaba.

The Road Map and Annapolis were built not only on the wobbly foundation of isolating and excluding Hamas and Gaza, but on an unrealistic, and ultimately failed, American-Israeli bid to topple Hamas by besieging Gaza and its entire population.   This siege, more than anything else, coupled with the lack of real progress on the ground in the West Bank–and not Israeli “concessions”–were responsible for the attacks which Israel has endured on its southern communities.   Had Sharon truly wanted to promote peace by withdrawing from Gaza, rather than to simply cut Israeli losses and bury any serious peace plan in “formaldehyde”–as his chief aide Dov Weissglas put it–he would have withdrawn Israeli troops and settlers from the Strip as part of an agreement with Abbas, rather than unilaterally.  In this way, he would have enabled the PA and Fatah moderates to take credit for a diplomatic achievement, rather than allowing Hamas to gain bragging rights before the Palestinian public that Israel had been pushed from Gaza only by its “resistance”–much as Hezbollah did with its Lebanese audience when Barak unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon.

By the same token, Barak’s move was largely motivated by Israel’s need to cut its ongoing losses from guerrilla attacks while Israeli troops remained entrenched in Lebanese territory.   It was a gift to Hezbollah, not a step towards peace, after Barak had walked away from a potential peace treaty with Syria, an act of political cowardice for which President Clinton and his chief Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, have criticized him harshly.   Barak balked on a Syrian-Israeli deal after Assad had committed to the US that under a land-for-peace bargain, Syria would insure that Hezbollah, its client, would be reined in, according to Ross.

You claim that the Arab world wasn’t ready to reach an agreement with Israel when Carter and Brzezinski were in the White House, and that the same is true now–as if nothing has changed in thirty years and there were no Arab peace initiative offering Israel recognition, normal ties and peace with the entire Arab world today; as if the rise of Iran were not providing powerful new incentives for the Sunni Arab states to end the conflict and form a close alliance with Israel and the US.

Nothing’s changed?   Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal has recently said that his group would not stand in the way of a peace deal between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel.  Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin told the Israeli government that “Hamas rhetoric has changed in recent weeks. ‘Public statements by leaders attest to efforts by Hamas to appear interested in ending the conflict with Israel, based on the model of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in exchange for a long-term hudnah'” or truce–until Netanyahu silenced him.  Netanyahu’s spokespeople claim that these changes in rhetoric are purely “cosmetic” and that Hamas “remains rooted in an extremist ideology which fundamentally opposes peace and reconciliation.”

But the great Jewish historian Walter Lacqueur was closer to the mark when he observed in the 1970’s that “even in the war aims of religious or quasi-religious movements a discrepancy often exists between the desirable and the possible. . . All such movements have come at one stage or another to the realization that with an enemy who cannot be defeated, temporary compromises have to be made.  The old enmity, the odium theologicum, is itself subject to gradual erosion as such compromises become permanent; the formulas of hatred may linger on but they no longer carry the same conviction.”

The latest poll of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, conducted jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, between May 21-June 3, 2009, showed that “59% of the Israelis support and 36% oppose a two-state solution. Among Palestinians, 61% support the two-state solution while 23% support a one-state solution and 9% support other solutions.” Are you imposing an idealistic, romantic definition of what constitutes acceptance of Israel by Palestinians, rather than a practical and realistic view of what it takes for there to be peace between two countries – whether Israel and Egypt, Palestine or Syria?

It is a categorical mistake to suggest that the Arabs aren’t ready to make peace with Israel because some, notably the Saudis, are unwilling to start the normalization process in exchange for the partial settlement freeze Netanyahu will finally offer. His government has been unwilling to come to a full stop on settlement construction, as requested by the US and the international community, and as required by the Road Map.  Instead, Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will continue building Jewish housing in Palestinian Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, regarded by the Arab world as the future capital of a Palestinian state.   Does this strike you as a wise way to inspire confidence in Israel’s good intentions about a future peace?

As any schoolchild knows, but so many Jewish leaders pretend not to, there can be no two-state solution without sharing Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis.    What’s more, Netanyahu remains adamant about continuing to build in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including those in heavily populated Palestinian areas which have no chance of becoming part of Israel under a future peace accord.   To genuinely promote peace, Israel needs to start offering economic incentives to settlers deep in the West Bank to begin returning to Israel, rather than erecting yet more housing for continued settler growth in areas that Israel will most certainly have to leave in any peace deal.

The Saudis want to begin a normalization process only once there is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.  Even if Netanyahu adopts a partial freeze on settlement building, they are rightly skeptical that he will countenance the establishment of a Palestinian state on fair terms.  Netanyahu’s long-standing opposition to a viable two-state solution, with a territorially contiguous Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, justifies their skepticism.  Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Netanyahu has failed to engender the kind of trust and good faith that would enable Arab leaders to begin an incremental process of normalization with Israel now.   Still, some Arab states–including Qatar, Tunisia, Bahrain and others–will probably agree to further normalization steps in exchange for a settlements moratorium.

Now let’s turn to what may be your biggest concern: that President Obama is pursuing Israeli-Arab peace with a genuine sense of urgency. I’ll address this issue, within the context of the dangers Israel faces with Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and the Palestinians, in the second part of this open letter, which is available here.

B’virkat shalom,

(Gidon) Doni Remba