For many American Jews, this reality has always been too hard to face. In 1988, a self-appointed group of American Jewish leaders met with Yasser Arafat in Stockholm--this at a time when no Israeli leader would meet with him--and were persuaded that all he wanted was a just political settlement. In 1993 came the Oslo accords and the Rabin-Arafat meeting, and most American Jews believed peace was at hand. They did not see it as a risk or as a bet but as a sure thing, easily justifying Israeli concessions. The American Jewish community and its national leadership (with rare exceptions like the Zionist Organization of America) were pro-Labor Party, distrustful of Israeli hard-liners, and committed to the "peace process." Today, after all the Israeli concessions, the truth is very clear: Palestinians and many other Arabs are still not reconciled to the existence of Israel. What is less clear is how American Jews will react to it.
In Israel, the "peace camp" is in disarray, for its miscalculations have been exposed--and shown to have put Israel in greater danger. And many of its members are speaking honestly about that fact. Journalist Ron Mayberg, for example, a leading voice of the peace camp, wrote in the newspaper Maariv that with the Ramallah lynchings, "the Palestinians stripped off the mask used to conceal their true faces since the beginning of the Oslo accords.... [W]e will never forget or forgive that which the Palestinians did to us yesterday."
And some Americans also recognize that the time has come to stand up for Israel. Ninety-four U.S. senators recently wrote to President Clinton asking that the United States stop being so "even-handed" and reaffirm its support for Israel. A group of retired U.S. military officers signed a newspaper ad on October 17, stating that "America's responsibility as a friend to Israel...should never yield to America's role as a facilitator in this process. Friends don't leave friends on the battlefield."
But where are the American Jews? The statement on the crisis by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism read like something French diplomats at the U.N. might produce: "We are greatly saddened by the renewed violence in the State of Israel.... We affirm our commitment to continued efforts to achieve peace through direct negotiations." To call Arafat's war "renewed violence in the State of Israel" is morally obtuse. Is it just too much to ask the USCJ to blame the Palestinians, something their whole statement avoids doing? And do the Israelis really need lectures today about direct negotiations? Don't they need, instead, flat-out statements of support when they are literally under fire? Can't we leave it to Barak to figure out whether direct negotiations are useful?
The statement from the Reform movement is far better, making it clear that Arafat bears the blame for the current violence and asking Reform Jews to write to Congress to urge that aid to the Palestinian Authority be cut off if Arafat unilaterally declares Palestinian statehood.
Still, its deepest commitment seems to be to the "peace process," even now. "Call the White House and express your appreciation for and support of President Clinton's continued strong, personal role in the Mid-East peace process," it urges, as if Clinton's foolish effort to win himself a Nobel Prize by rushing into ill-prepared peace negotiations this past summer had not contributed to today's problems. Calling Arafat's rejection of the terms Barak offered "reckless," the Reform statement says, "[W]e cannot comprehend why it is that Chairman Arafat prefers war."
So what is to be done? "We urge all the parties to return to the negotiating table immediately," say the bewildered Reform leaders. But Arafat's behavior is entirely comprehensible if one admits--finally--that he does not want peace with Israel; he wants the elimination of Israel. That being the case, of course he prefers war when he thinks a bit of war will advance his cause. And a return to negotiations with him simply rewards that behavior. Like the Conservative Jews, the Reform leaders cannot break out of the box in which their thinking has imprisoned them.
Some of the best statements of all come from the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. The AJCongress' statement accuses Arafat of a "cold and cynical calculation" about using his own people's deaths to advance his position, and goes on to warn against allowing these tactics to succeed. The AJCommittee placed a full-page ad in The New York Times on October 10th, angrily blaming Arafat and his henchmen for the violence and explaining how they incited and fomented violence, using the airwaves, the schools, the Palestinian police, and every tool at their disposal to make sure that blood was shed. The statement conveys real anger as well as sorrow.
But the AJCongress also says that danger exists unless the parties return to the negotiating table very soon. And even the AJCommittee statement ends up on an odd note: "For the Palestinian and Arab leadership across the Middle East, there is no choice but to grasp the long-outstretched hand of Israel and assume responsibility for peace."
Really? That would come as a surprise to most of that leadership, who appear to believe--and to act upon--a very different premise. They think they have a choice, which is to reject Israel's hand as they reject its right to exist. It is this fundamental fact that Israeli peace activists are now contending with and that Americans Jews are, for the most part, avoiding. Even the harsh criticisms of Arafat are usually paired with pressure on Israel to go back to negotiating with him.
Let's stop this flight from reality before it does even more harm to Israel. Let's stop pushing for more talks and offer instead something far simpler and more valuable: solidarity and support. . The American Jewish Committee's new ad on October 20th moves closer to this position: "We stand with Israel, America's partner in democracy and peace." Such support--by the Jewish community for our brethren, and by the U.S. government for the only democracy and only reliable American ally in the Middle East--is in any event the only basis upon which Israel could ever negotiate safely.
The years of U.S. pressure on Israel, combined with winking and turning away when Arafat violated every treaty he ever signed, must end. Since Oslo, the U.S. has ignored Arafat's corruption, his human rights violations, his interference with the development of Palestinian democracy, his arms build-up, his calls for violence (in Arabic, while he soothes us in English), and his preparation of another generation of Palestinians for war. And so, for the most part, have American Jews, who persuaded themselves that this was the path to peace. It was, in fact, the path to the lynchings at Ramallah.
Menachem Rosensaft, a former president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, was one of the five American Jews who met with Arafat in 1988. Recently he wrote, in The Washington Post, "I was wrong." The error: "allowing ourselves to be convinced that Yasser Arafat ever actually wanted peace with Israel." Rosensaft now sees the situation in Israel with great clarity, acknowledging that there may be little point in negotiations and urging instead that Arafat be ostracized as Milosevic was. And he repeats: "[T]hose of us who wanted so desperately to see Arafat as a positive, constructive presence of any kind must reiterate over and over again: we were wrong." That kind of rethinking of basic premises, now seen widely in the peace camp in Israel, has yet to reach our shores. With a new administration coming in a few months, let us hope that it arrives quickly--in Washington, and in the minds of American Jews.