In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.
These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.
That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.
It bears remembering that, as even the president pointed out in his peace speech, Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to make what the letter called “painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.” As the IPF and its backers know all too well the reason why political parties that focused their platforms on the peace process were marginalized in the January election is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters understand what happened after Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza and have no interest in repeating these experiments in the West Bank, let alone Jerusalem.
All of which should cause one to wonder why such a gaggle of presumably well-meaning American Jews are still acting as if the absence of peace is the result of Israeli decisions. Like Obama’s speech, their preaching about confidence building was addressed to the wrong leader.
Should the Palestinians ever decide to accept a peace settlement that would, as President Obama rightly insisted, recognize Israel as a Jewish state and definitively end the conflict, they would find that most Israelis would be willing to make great sacrifices to achieve such an end.
But with Hamas-run Gaza—the independent Palestinian state in all but name—continuing to be a base for rocket attacks on southern Israel and with the supposed moderates of the Fatah-run PA continuing to spew hate for Jews on their official media while avoiding peace talks for years, expecting confidence building measures from Netanyahu to make a difference requires a certain tunnel vision that is impervious to reality. Urging Israel, as this letter seems to do, to release more terrorists with blood on their hands from prison, make concessions on settlements or Jerusalem — the sort of measures that are usually considered appropriate to building Palestinian “confidence” — prior to even sitting down will only encourage more intransigence from Abbas, not peace moves.
With Secretary of State John Kerry heading to the region on yet another diplomatic fool’s errand, advice from Americans about how Israel should be demonstrating its peaceful intentions is the sort of absurdity that we have come to expect from IPF and its ilk. With even President Obama demonstrating that after four years in office he’s starting to catch on to the facts of life about the Middle East, would it be too much to ask that some of his Jewish supporters do the same?