A response to Abe Foxman

August 5th, 2009

Dear Abe, I welcome your response and value the opportunity for civil dialogue within the American Jewish community among friends of the State of Israel. Permit me, in that spirit, to raise a few respectful questions in response to your thoughtful letter. First, the Arab world has in fact taken a major concrete step toward true peace with Israel through the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers full recognition and acceptance of Israel in return for a negotiated comprehensive resolution to the conflict.  I would ask why this Initiative, which holds exactly the promise that Israel has sought for 61 years – full acceptance by the Arab and Muslim worlds – is so rarely mentioned by the ADL or other American Jewish organizations.  The Initiative is not a peace plan ready to be accepted tomorrow.  It is, however, a clear statement of what stands to be achieved should negotiations succeed: in the words of the Saudi Foreign Minister just last week, comprehensive regional peace on the basis of two states for two peoples, with an agreed solution to the issue of refugees and an equitable settlement of other key issues from borders to security. Second, the Palestinians have, in fact, begun serious implementation of obligations under the Road Map in terms of security.  The Israeli Defense Forces and other security services have publicly acknowledged the strides made by the Palestinian Authority.  You are correct when you say that it would be false to say that Israel has never undertaken steps to move toward peace.  Why is it not possible to acknowledge that, in fact, the Palestinians too have taken a “concrete step” toward a true peace with Israel? Third, on settlements, I assume we would agree that continued construction has done great damage to Israel and its security, undermining the credibility of the peace process in Palestinian and Arab eyes, and threatening the very possibility of a two-state solution. Yet the settlements continue to grow.  When the peace process began in 1993 there were 111,000 settlers in the West Bank alone.  Today, according to recent official Israeli counts, that number is over 300,000. A credible call for an end to Palestinian incitement and for the Palestinians and Arab states to uphold their commitments cannot ignore these realities.

Yet I think we also probably agree – surprisingly – on the need to move beyond a focus merely on settlements. I would hold that the most urgent need of Israel today is to get to a two-state solution, while addressing Israel’s legitimate security and other concerns. The only way to end the dispute over settlements is the establishment of a permanent border between Israel and Palestine, accepted by both parties and recognized by the international community.  When that has been achieved and implemented, Israel can build to its heart’s content – and to the limits of the local zoning ordinances in those towns located within the internationally-recognized boundaries of the State of Israel (I am told, for instance, that "natural growth" is not seen by Tel Aviv city planners as legitimate cause for adding another story to an apartment building or for putting up a new home). You are right on one final point as well: the challenges on the way to peace should not be minimized.  As starting positions, the Palestinians make demands that are unlikely to be met by the Israelis, and so too the Israelis make demands that are unlikely to be met by the Palestinians.
The sides – left to their own devices – have not proven able to take the final tough steps to close those gaps.  We know the political constraints facing Prime Minister Netanyahu.  President Abbas faces similarly difficult domestic politics. Yet the answer is not to paper over the differences between the sides, but to resolve them.  And that’s where the international community, and in particular the United States, come in.  Only a serious, credible and fair international mediator – namely, the United States – can help to close the gaps and reach a resolution. It is very important that the issues we have begun to discuss are aired out in the Jewish community in the coming weeks and months.  I am hopeful that President Obama – with the best interests of the U.S., Israel and the region at heart – is going to push for difficult choices to be made in the coming year.  For sure, none of us will get everything that we hope for.  But, if the sides and their allies engage constructively, we may in fact get what we all pray for, and that is long-term peace and security for Israel and for all the people of the Middle East. Sincerely, Jeremy Jeremy Ben-Ami
Executive Director J Street