A Letter to Israel from American Jewish Leaders Shows The Problem with American Jewish 'Leaders'

The April 3 letter which 100 leading American Jews sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is distressing.

There’s nothing wrong with the letter’s specified intention to ask Netanyahu to cooperate with President Barack Obama and to facilitate confidence-building measures to try to buy a Palestinian Authority willingness to negotiate, as long as those measures are reciprocated by the other side.

The problem is that the language used parallels the misrepresentation of Israel’s situation and positions: by the way it is written, this letter seems to be not about influencing Netanyahu or Israelis but about enhancing the social and political credentials of those involved -- Israel’s security and interests be damned.

In addition, the letter accepts the concept that the Palestinian Authority must be paid benefits to be willing to talk so that it can receive bigger benefits; that it must be begged via "painful" and potentially dangerous Israeli concessions to accept a Palestinian state. Since the Palestinians are doing Israel such a big favor by making peace, this concept goes, Israel should make concessions first, and hope for some compromise from the other side later.

I support a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 borders with relatively minor modifications, which is supposedly the same thing the signers want. But -- and here's where the letter misses the point -- only based on a real deal which must be based on mutual compromises, an eagerness by both sides to make a lasting peace, and a structure that seems likely to make the peace lasting.

In fact, a deal is impossible because the PA doesn't really want one, which is why they need to be begged with treats to talk -- and why even if there are a few talks, they won't succeed. Also, at a time of growing radicalization in the region, a theoretical deal based on "painful" concessions would endanger Israel's strategic situation.

The implication of the letter, in contrast, is that a peace deal is so urgent for Israel that it must be desperate to get one no matter what the cost. That nothing can go wrong with the new situation an agreement can create; that Israel's prime goal must always be to keep the current president happy despite any judgment or considerations of its own.

Those who signed the letter -- remember, they didn't write it -- are all good people, none of whom are anti-Israel. That’s why these people should have known better and written this letter differently.

None of this was necessary and the matter could have been handled with dignity and much greater effectiveness.

There are left-wingers, more powerful than ever before in U.S. history, who loathe Israel and want to see it greatly weakened or wiped out; there are conservatives who are pro-Israel, though some want to exploit it for partisan purposes. (By the way, it should be noted that the main group, the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel, is hypocritical since its leadership includes people who support Obama's dangerous pro-Islamist policy, which is more dangerous for Israel than anything Obama is doing on the "peace process.")

But: where are the liberal pro-Israel forces who should be speaking out sensibly, and not merely rubber-stamping Obama’s policy and mass media stereotypes?

Here is the letter’s text:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

As Americans deeply committed to Israel’s security, we were heartened by President Obama’s recent historic visit and his unequivocal assertion that “so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo le-vad.” We also are encouraged by the rapprochement with Turkey, which was achieved in great measure due to your leadership.

We believe that this is a compelling moment for you and your new government to respond to President Obama’s call for peace by taking concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We urge you, in particular, to work closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.

Your leadership would challenge Palestinian leaders to take similarly constructive steps, including, most importantly, a prompt return to the negotiating table.

We join with President Obama in expressing our steadfast support for your efforts to ensure Israel’s future as the secure and democratic nation state of the Jewish people.

So: what is wrong with this text?

-- Israel is shown merely as responding to Obama’s orders, without pointing out that Israel has been trying to get negotiations restarted for 12 years.

-- The tone of the letter suggests: Look at us! We’re the good kids! We don’t defend Israel’s past actions, we don’t criticize U.S. policy or the Palestinians! The job of Jewish leaders is to criticize their own side and urge it to be nicer, even if that costs the lives of other Jews (Israelis), while they risk nothing.

-- The outrageous reference to “painful territorial sacrifices.” It is revealing of the cringing nature of the letter that this phrase is totally unnecessary, since the letter is about immediate, short-term confidence-building measures and not about a final peace treaty. Why focus on a huge Israeli concession when the issue is just to get talks restarted?

-- The word “painful” communicates to me that Israel should have to undergo pain and take risks -- while signers of this document won’t even risk criticizing anything that Obama has done toward Israel. In other words, they want Israel to suffer real risks and pain while generally -- there are exceptions on the list -- they are not willing to themselves suffer the minor pains of being a dissenter to the dominant narrative of the American elite today.

“Painful” in this case should mention that the last time Israel made painful concessions, about 2000 Israelis died from terrorism and the country’s security was badly damaged.

-- How can such a letter not mention this Oslo-era experience or Israel’s other sacrifices for peace?

-- The letter maintains the absurd approach that first Israel makes painful and risky concessions, and only afterward are the Palestinians required to do so. This suggests the typical anti-Israel narrative that the Palestinian leaders are moderate and want peace, while Israel is the barrier to successful negotiations.

-- It openly says that Israel needs to make big concessions, even if the Palestinian leadership gives nothing back.

One thing that is sad about this is that the letter could have been written differently -- to support both Israel and show their support for Obama's new "friendly" policy toward Israel -- and I would bet that all the same people would have signed it.

It could have gone like this:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

As Americans who have been and continue to be long-time supporters of Israel’s prosperity, security, and reputation, we were heartened by President Obama’s recent historic visit and his unequivocal assertion that “so long as there is a United States of America you are not alone.”

We believe that this is a compelling moment for you and your new government to continue to strive for peace, as you and other Israeli leaders have done for decades. We know you and Israel have long shown a commitment to a "two-states for two peoples" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We are also aware that the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement marked a courageous effort to resolve the conflict. We know that the Palestinian leadership did not live up to its commitments at many points during the 1993-2000 peace process era. Hundreds of Israelis were killed and wounded as a result of this sincere effort, and in 2000 PLO and Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat rejected the offer of President Bill Clinton and Israel for a two-state solution. Instead, Arafat turned to a violent revolt that often used terrorism and lasted for six years.

We also remember how you responded to President Obama’s requests during his first term, including for a ten-month-long suspension of construction on existing settlements. We know that the Palestinian leadership did not negotiate seriously despite your efforts.

Nevertheless, without illusions and by taking minimal risk, it is worth continuing this effort for peace and cooperation with the United States. Of course, Israel should make no concessions—whether confidence-building or otherwise—without concomitant concessions by the Palestinian side. We will work to make sure that President Obama and the American public understand this point.

Among other things, your leadership would challenge Palestinian leaders to take similarly constructive steps, including, most importantly, a prompt return to the negotiating table. If the Palestinian leaders do not so respond we will be loud and clear in explaining to the U.S. government and American people that while Israel seeks peace, the current Palestinian leadership does not do so.

We believe that either way a flexible policy--which you also followed during President Obama’s first term--would be best. It will show President Obama and the American people Israel’s cooperation and true goal of achieving peace and it will challenge the Palestinian leaders to follow suit or be exposed for rejecting peace.