Warning that Americans’ support for Israel could wane, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee forcefully defended his organization’s call for a “unity” pledge meant to prevent Israel from becoming a wedge issue during the next election season.
Speaking in Short Hills, David Harris said the goal of the pledge, issued by the AJC and the Anti-Defamation League last month, was to “keep Israel from becoming a dangerous political football.”
“Of course there are going to be disagreements between parties, and within parties,” said Harris. “I don’t begrudge them their right to be partisans. They are looking to win votes for their party, but we need strong advocates in both parties.”
Harris spoke to AJC members and well-wishers who gathered earlier at Temple B’nai Jeshurun to honor the retiring executive director of the AJC’s New Jersey Region, Allyson Gall (see sidebar).
Harris did not refer by name to critics of the pledge, who included the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Both groups said the pledge’s call for bipartisanship would stifle debate and inhibit their ability to promote their candidates.
But Harris did distinguish between political “partisans” and “advocates” like himself, saying effective advocacy for Israel calls for strict bipartisanship.
Harris recalled how the Nixon administration supplied weapons to Israel after its army was caught off guard in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, even though he received only a minority of the Jewish vote.
“We don’t know who will sit in the Oval Office, but we do know this: Whoever sits in the Oval Office will face a crisis situation in the Middle East, and, like Richard Nixon in 1973, we will have to pray that we have an open door, that we have access, and that he makes the right decision,” he said.
Harris said he was concerned that partisan accusations of candidates’ being “weak on Israel” could undermine relationships between the Jewish community and officials who are ultimately elected.
When the pledge was issued, Harris said, “The point we were trying to make, we thought, was like motherhood and apple pie.”
He discussed that pledge in a speech that painted a sober picture of a volatile Middle East, and an uncertain future.
“In my reading of the Constitution, nowhere does it say the U.S.-Israel relationship is cemented for all time,” he said. “There are those in this country who wish to reverse the relationship. There are those who wish to challenge the impact and influence of the pro-Israel community. They know they will not succeed today, but they have a long-term vision that begins at the colleges and universities. Their future influence there is going to help shape the future direction of America, and heaven help us if that future does not include a strong bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Questioned by an audience member about the possibility of a two-state solution, Harris noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “completely ignored the Jewish connection” to the Land of Israel in his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly.
“How can you make peace with someone who is not prepared to acknowledge your fundamental legitimacy?” he asked. “I would like to think it takes a Palestinian leader who understands, whether or not he ever becomes a Zionist, that Israel is there to stay.”
Harris said peace will be a stronger possibility “when Palestinian textbooks begin to acknowledge there is a Jewish people and we have no horns and we are not the sons and daughters of monkeys and pigs, and we are not crusaders and interlopers and occupiers, [and that] like the Muslims and the Christians, we, too have a history.
“We are prepared to accommodate Palestinian sovereign rights, but not at the expense of our own,” Harris said.