Decision Time

June 24th, 2013

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed back to the Middle East this week – his fifth trip in four months – to jumpstart diplomacy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The secretary apparently intends to tell both Israelis and the Palestinians that it’s time to decide if they are serious about engaging in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a two-state solution. If not, he’ll stand down and they can both watch the status quo deteriorate toward further confrontation.

Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who commands the Israeli military in the West Bank, warned last week that if Kerry’s efforts fail, we could very well see an “escalation” in unrest in the West Bank.

Recognizing the seriousness of the moment, leaders on Israel’s right have been anxiously working to bury Kerry’s initiative – along with the two-state solution itself. Israel’s new Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the national religious “Jewish Home” party, last week told a settlers’ conference Israel should “build, build, build” in the Palestinian territory and annex over 60 percent of the West Bank immediately.

Bennett echoed what Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said earlier this month. Danon, who is a rising star in Netanyahu’s own Likud party, said most Israelis had given up on the idea of land for peace and that Israel should declare sovereignty over large areas of the West Bank.

These comments were resoundingly rejected by other members of the governing coalition, including both Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid told the Washington Post Sunday there’s no other option to the two-state solution and that “we have to push forward for this moment, constantly.”

“If we don’t go for the two-state solution, this state will stop being a Jewish state,” Lapid said.

The lack of uniform, clear signals from Israel’s government is matched by the passivity and general dysfunction on the Palestinian side, where the new prime minister resigned after just two weeks and conflicting statements emerge daily regarding President Abbas’ next moves.

Here in the US, it’s been heartening to see leaders of the American Jewish establishment denounce the anti-two-states rhetoric from Israel’s right wing. Both David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) strongly condemned the comments by Bennett and Danon while calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu and other top Israeli leaders to repudiate them.

What is needed from American Jews right now, however, is far more than just opposition to the worst of the right wing’s comments. Secretary Kerry asked the American Jewish community to help build a “constituency for peace” that will actively urge Israel’s leaders to seize this opportunity to end the conflict with the Palestinians in a two-state deal.

On that front, far more needs to be done. As The Forward stated in an editorial last week on the subject, “from the long list of American advocacy groups who call themselves pro-Israel, there has been an uncharacteristic reticence to respond to Kerry’s impassioned plea."1

I worry that the passion lacking in building that constituency for peace will be fully harnessed, should talks fail, for an extensive campaign to pin the entirety of the blame on the Palestinians.

Even as he made the case against Israel’s right-wing one-staters, the AJC’s Harris couldn’t resist pointing the finger of blame at Abbas, who he said “walked away from the negotiating table more than four years ago and has been missing-in-action ever since.”

The ADL’s Foxman, too, spent the bulk of the op-ed taking on Bennett’s and Danon’s statements slamming the Palestinians, arguing that the Israeli leaders’ comments “obscure the true reason why progress has not been made toward restarting a peace process: the rejection by the Palestinian Authority of negotiations with Israel for almost five years.”

I am certainly not ready to play the role of defense lawyer for the Palestinians, who have made their share of mistakes over the years and unquestionably share the blame for the lack of a two-state deal.

But aiming to win the blame game in the event of failure is no substitute for doing everything one can do to promote diplomacy’s success.

With the future of the state of Israel, its security and its democratic and Jewish character hanging in the balance, this is the moment for all who care to press both parties to make the compromises and sacrifices necessary to advance a solution to the conflict.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are offering Israel a path to a sustainable and secure future through reasonable negotiation and compromise. It’s a path that may not be available for quite some time if it isn’t taken now.