The UN tsunami predicted by Israel’s minister of defense, Ehud Barak, failed to occur. Instead, after the warm reception given Mahmoud Abbas and his petition for membership for the “State of Palestine,” no vote was taken. Instead the matter was referred to both the Security Council, where its fate is uncertain, and to the Quartet, the informal group consisting of the United States, UN, the EU, and Russia. That group recommended that Israel and the Palestinian Authority engage in and complete negotiations by the end of 2012. (Such deadlines are rarely adhered to).
This was substantially Israel’s position. It is not surprising that the Netanyahu government almost immediately accepted it while the PA put forth several conditions, most notably a total cessation of settlement building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel should be grateful to the U.S. and President Obama, whose address to the UN showed an amazing empathy for Israeli concerns. Yet, with this in mind, why am I uneasy?
I am disturbed in part because the Netanyahu government’s first action after the UN “victory” was to grant permits for more than 1,000 housing units in Gilo, a section of Jerusalem formerly in Jordanian hands. I am aware that Gilo will probably remain in Israel’s hands should an agreement be reached. But was it necessary to embarrass Israel’s supporters so soon after they had stuck their necks out on Israel’s behalf? No wonder Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced Israel’s action both publicly and privately in phone calls to Netanyahu. And just what would Israel give up if it suspended settlement activity for the sake of peace negotiations?
I am also disturbed by attacks on Arab crops and mosques in the West Bank, the last one just this week. The IDF estimates that there are 1,000 of what they have begun to call “Jewish terrorists.” Yet the perpetrators are rarely apprehended. According to a Sept. 23 article in Yediot Ahronot, these “terrorists” have expanded their activities to include the destruction of IDF equipment. They have also begun intimidating and threatening both Army officers and Shin Bet operatives, causing the Shin Bet to reassign one of them to a posting abroad for his own safety.
Full disclosure: Since the age of 12 when I became a Young Judaean, Israel has been central to my life. It is the outstanding accomplishment of the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years.
I attended Young Judaea’s national camp, Tel Yehuda, twice as a camper and once as a counselor. My first experience in Israel was as a student in its Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad (Machon). At Brooklyn College, I served as president of the Student Zionist Organization and conceived and coordinated a full semester celebration of Israel’s 10th anniversary with events sponsored by many campus clubs, including lectures and a “Salute to Israel Ball” that inaugurated the new Hillel House. This Israel advocacy continued throughout my professional career except for the four years I lived in Jerusalem. My wife and daughters were similarly involved and my seven grandchildren have all visited Israel.
Recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, on a trip to Israel, warned about its growing isolation in the Middle East. He urged it to find an accommodation with Egypt and Turkey. Thomas Friedman in The New York Times went further. Acknowledging that the estrangement from Egypt and Turkey cannot be laid solely at Israel’s door, he urged Israel to present a “peace overture that fair minded people would recognize as serious, and thereby reduce its isolation.” Such a proposal would obviously include leaving much of the West Bank and allowing for some Palestinian representation in Jerusalem.
When Netanyahu speaks, he always includes a statement that Israel would be very generous in a settlement but then goes on to say that Israel must retain the exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and major areas of the West Bank. What else is left?
The Netanyahu government often complains that there is no partner for peace. Yet, since the days of the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime ministers have been negotiating with Yasser Arafat and then Abbas. In a recent New York Times op-ed, former PM Ehud Olmert described how he offered Abbas a complete proposal involving all areas of contention. Before Abbas responded, Netanyahu came to power, withdrew Olmert’s plan, and offered to start negotiations anew. This, understandably, was rejected by Abbas and we are back to square one.
The other major reason for Israel’s unwillingness to cede territory is based on security. Yet Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg notes that every IDF chief of staff save for one, Moshe Yaalon, and every living Shin Bet and Mossad chief — in other words, those most responsible for Israel’s security — say that Israel could live securely alongside a Palestinian state with adjusted borders.
I don’t know if Netanyahu’s reticence in mounting a serious peace effort is due to reasons of coalition or ideology. I do shudder to think how his policies interfere with the achievement of a real peace which would allow Israel to blossom and live in security with each “under his vine and fig tree and none to make him afraid.”
The challenge for those of us who love Israel is this: to defend Israel from those who unfairly malign her while telling the truth when we believe that the current government is not acting in its best interests.