An unnecessary error

An unnecessary error

I have a number of rules that I follow in writing my columns. Here are three of them.

Rule 1. Don’t write about American politics. Rule 2. Don’t write about Israeli politics. Rule 3. Sometimes ignore rules 1 and 2.

This is a rule 3 column.

It’s been a little less than two weeks since the United States abstained on a United Nations resolution relating to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. The Jewish community’s reaction was fast and furious, as was the Israeli government’s. And those reactions were, in the main, strongly condemnatory of the abstention, with vitriol directed at President Biden, his administration, and his party.

I saw much of this on social and in Jewish print media. To take a few examples, here are two headlines from Jewish News Syndicate columns about the abstention: “Biden’s UN betrayal of Israel is a victory for Hamas” and “Biden’s betrayal of Israel is now complete.” An inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer ended a recent missive with the accusation “perfidy, thy name is Biden,” and even Rep. Gottheimer (D-NJ Dist. 5) expressed fear and shock at the vote. Prime Minister Netanyahu not only fulminated against the abstention, saying it was a “clear retreat from the consistent position of the U.S.,” but also canceled a trip by a high-level Israeli delegation coming to the U.S. to discuss the Israeli military’s plans for an operation in Rafah.

What was this supposedly perfidious resolution, that according to one column, saved Hamas from defeat in Gaza, and according to another, was a sellout of Western civilization? Did it demand a permanent ceasefire or the withdrawal of the IDF from Gaza? Did it ignore the hostages? Did it support Hamas and its October 7 atrocities?

You don’t have to believe me when I say the answer to the latter three questions is “no.” Just look at the words of the resolution’s critical paragraph, which states: “Demands an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire, and also demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access to address their medical and other humanitarian needs, and further demands that the parties comply with their obligations under international law in relation to all persons they detain.”

Note, the word “permanent” does not appear before “ceasefire.” Why? Because the U.S. vetoed a Russian motion to amend the resolution to add that word. Moreover, there are two major “demands” in this decretal paragraph: to immediately (a) implement a Ramadan ceasefire, and (b) unconditionally release all the hostages. Significantly, the resolution does not demand that detainees in Israeli jails be released in exchange for the hostages; rather, the hostage release is explicitly unconditional. Thus, one upshot of this resolution is that Russia and China, supporters of Hamas who vetoed previous U.S.-sponsored resolutions, voted for, and are now on record as supporting, an immediate unconditional hostage release without calling for an exchange of prisoners, a permanent end to hostilities, or an IDF withdrawal from Gaza. And this is a sellout of Western civilization?

The resolution, of course, is far from perfect; in a perfect world it would have explicitly linked the ceasefire and hostage release and denounced Hamas’s October 7 carnages. Indeed, it was this lack of perfection that caused the U.S. to abstain. Nonetheless, the demands for the ceasefire and hostage release appear not in two separate paragraphs or even separate sentences; rather, they’re included in the same sentence, implying a linkage.

Implications are not explicit, of course; implication means ambiguity. However, ambiguity is a keystone of diplomacy, allowing opposing parties to explain an agreement in ways that best meet their own needs and policies while still moving ahead. Look at Resolution 242, enacted in 1967 after the Six Day War, calling for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The Arab nations argue this requires Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967. Israel’s position is that the omission of the words “the” or “all” before territories means that it is up to the parties to negotiate the specific dimensions of any withdrawal. A very fine point, but being old enough to remember that war and its aftermath, I recall that this ambiguity was intentional and heavily negotiated to allow the parties to move forward from the war without conceding their positions.

It would have been so much wiser and better had the Jewish community and the Israeli government, in reacting to this latest U.N. resolution, followed the lead set by their predecessors in 1967. But they did just the opposite; they unnecessarily and foolishly accepted their enemies’ interpretation that the ceasefire and hostage release are not linked, and that the call for a ceasefire means the ending of all hostilities in Gaza.

I’m a columnist and not a speechwriter. But here’s a rough draft of what I would have proposed as Israel’s response to the resolution.

“We thank our long-time friend and supporter President Biden and the members of his administration for the U.S. abstention on this imperfect resolution. We fully understand it was not a reversal of policy and continue to appreciate and cherish our warm and ongoing relationship. And notwithstanding the resolution’s imperfections, Israel stands prepared to follow all the terms of paragraph 1 and implement the demanded Ramadan ceasefire as soon as Hamas implements the demanded unconditional hostage release. We are ready to abide by the demands in the resolution when all of them, not just some of them, are implemented.”

I understand that this approach would have engendered a great deal of pushback from Israel’s enemies. But at least our side would have framed the discussion in its best light without buying into the interpretation its enemies have grafted onto an ambiguous resolution.

And even if I’m wrong — always a possibility — and the abstention was a mistake that was not in Israel’s best interests, our side’s overwhelming response, including publicly embarrassing our most powerful and only indispensable ally, was still a serious error. Is that how you treat a friend who, in these very difficult circumstances, has consistently stood by your side, often alone and with possible adverse political consequences? Is this how you treat a friend who has, among other things, made frequent strong statements in support of Israel from October 7 to today, vetoed numerous one-sided U.N. resolutions, defended Israel in the International Court of Justice, suspended UNRWA funding, deployed aircraft carrier groups in the area, and supplied and continues to supply much-needed aid and arms to Israel?

It’s not. Friends don’t expect 100 percent agreement from their friends or embarrass them over a disagreement. Friends look beyond a single event and evaluate their relationships over time and not on one data point. Friends know that “my way or the highway” weakens bonds and undermines connections. Friends know that they can disagree and still support and rely on each other.

Sadly, the reactions by Israel and large parts of the American Jewish community to the U.S. abstention at the U.N., and even to Senator Schumer’s speech, have damaged the critically important U.S.-Israel friendship more than any one vote or speech did. It is time for wiser heads to prevail, for tact and diplomacy to be employed over pique, and for a mature understanding of friendship to prevail.

BeYachad NeNatze’ach — together we will win — the Israeli slogan emphasizing a renewed post-October 7 unity in the face of adversity — doesn’t mean that all Israelis agree about the conduct of the war. It means that there can and must be unity even in disagreement in order to realize victory. And that applies to the Israel-U.S. relationship as well. BeYachad NeNatze’ach — we all must stand together until victory is achieved.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a retired lawyer, longtime Teaneck resident, and regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.

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