By Brian Landsberg
Most Americans are concerned about the economy, the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and global warming — the Israel-Palestine conflict does not make the top ten list. But allow me to suggest that resolving the conflict deserves the high priority that Secretary of State John Kerry has given it, and that Americans of many persuasions should speak out in support of Kerry’s efforts.
My personal commitment to this issue stems from two sources. As a former President of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region and a former Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council I care deeply about Israel and its security. And as a civil rights lawyer and academic I want both Israelis and Palestinians living in democratic states with peace and security.
But there are compelling reasons why all Americans should care about resolving this conflict and support Kerry’s efforts. Chief among them: All Americans have a stake in peace in the Middle East. The region has been the source of horrific terrorist attacks on us and our allies; that has involved America in the longest war in American history, with thousands of American casualties and additional loss of lives in Lebanon, Libya, and Somalia; and that continues to generate terrorist threats that require an extensive homeland security effort. Resolution of that conflict is necessary (although not sufficient by itself) to achieving broader peace, security, prosperity, and democracy in the Middle East and beyond.
The ongoing conflict diverts attention from more basic underlying issues in the region and provides excuses for failing to deal with them. Consider the potential benefits for the region and the world that would follow from an opening up of communication, political dialogue and commerce between Israel and the other countries of the Middle East. Add to this the fact that for most Americans Israel and Palestine are the Holy Land to which they feel a personal connection.
Many who love Israel see two threats that make it urgent to reach a peace agreement now. First, Israel’s security is threatened by letting the issue continue to fester. It is threatened directly by rockets from Gaza, violence in the West Bank, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is threatened as well by growing isolation in the international community that, whether rightly or wrongly, views Israel as an occupying power and the Palestinians as victims, and it is threatened by Iranian nuclear ambitions that use the ongoing conflict as one justification.
Secondly, Israel’s identity as a democratic Jewish homeland is threatened so long as it rules over a West Bank Palestinian population that has no right to vote in Israel. As some Israelis have said, Israel has the choice of agreeing to a two-state solution to the conflict or treating all of the territory it holds as part of Israel and all the inhabitants as citizens of Israel. The current arrangement is unsustainable and a one-state approach simply is not a feasible way to achieve and securely maintain a democratic state for Israelis or Palestinians, in light of their distinct national aspirations and the unfortunate history of conflict.
This conflict has been going on since before the formation of the State of Israel; why is the peace process suddenly so important? Because the conflict is at a critical juncture. As the facts on the ground change it becomes ever more difficult to create the structure of lasting peace. Students in Israeli and Palestinian schools are all too often taught to hate one another and are traumatized by the violence around them.
A steady drumbeat of Palestinian and settler violence drives the parties further apart. In the absence of a peace agreement, more Israeli settlers will be interspersed in the in the West Bank, greatly increasing the barriers both sides face to making a sustainable peace agreement. As Secretary Kerry said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, “if we do not succeed now…, we may not get another chance.” Failure of his initiative would add steam, as he noted, “to the insidious campaign to delegitimize Israel.”
The argument is often made that the two sides are enemies; that prior efforts have failed; that there is a lack of will to come to an agreement. Yet, as Yitzhak Rabin pointed out, “We make peace with our enemies, not with our friends.” A Gallup poll last March found that although Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical that negotiations will succeed, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace; they want a two-state solution. A Pew Research poll last spring showed overwhelming support by both Israelis and Palestinians for the U.S. to “play a role in resolving the stalemate.”
The United States should not dictate the details, which the parties are entitled to work out. We should, however, encourage the parties to complete the hard work of crafting an agreement that recognizes that Israel and Palestine are two sovereign states, protects the security of both parties, resolves issues regarding Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians who formerly lived in Israel, and draws permanent boundaries. Parties who have been enemies need a committed third party to bring them together. The United States is well suited to that role, given the history of the conflict, the ongoing commitment of the United States will be crucial to building a sense of trust and security on both sides.
In the face of “peace process fatigue” President Obama took a bold step when he assigned Secretary Kerry to help achieve a negotiated solution. Senator Feinstein has sponsored and Representatives Matsui and Bera have each co-sponsored , Senate Resolution 203 and House Resolution. 365 respectively, both of which express the support of the Congress for Kerry’s efforts. Supporters of peace in the Middle East should urge Senator Boxer and our other local representatives to join in sponsoring that legislation.
In the words of Israeli former Knesset member Uri Avnery, “Is a two-state solution still possible? Nothing else is possible.” Now is the time for those of us vested in Israel’s future to do what we can to make that eventuality a reality.
Brian Landsberg is the chair of J Street Sacramento