I am a confirmed Israeli liberal. I believe there should be a Palestinian state on virtually all the land occupied by Israel since 1967. I feel strongly that the vast majority of the settlements should be dismantled. Doubtful that the Palestinians and us are capable, on our own accord, of reaching a peace agreement, I accept the necessity for outside intervention. My views are unshakable. Practically, historically and morally, I am committed to the Israeli “peace camp.”
So why was I so irked when, just a few days prior to the outbreak of the war in Iraq, President Bush made his statement in the White House Rose Garden about the “road map” for the Middle East? After all, there is little of what I know of the map with which I disagree. Why did I hear myself saying, “After months of silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, why now?”
We all know the answer: As Bush pursues his war against Iraq, he needs to placate the Arab nations. And what better way than to hint that he will “offer up” Israel after the war is concluded? Now, I know that not to be true, but there is this gnawing feeling that just does not sit well with me. It was the timing of Bush’s statement that I found offensive. It strikes one as terribly disingenuous. At least British Prime Minister Tony Blair was more direct when he said: “It is precisely at this time, when we are engaged in disarming Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction, that we need to say to our Arab and Muslim friends that we are even-handed.”
Even-handedness is the code word that makes us Israelis jump. As does the word “linkage,” as in the linkage between the Arab world’s anti-Americanism and American support for Israel. Bush was right in demanding that we stop some of our more aggressive policies in the territories, including the continued building of settlements. And the president did call for an end to terrorism.
But there was something else that was terribly troubling about the timing of this hastily called presidential announcement. It came on the heels of Virginia Rep. Jim Moran’s statement that it is the “Jews who are pushing America toward war, and it is the Jews who can put a stop to it.” It seems that Bush, albeit unwittingly and uncharacteristically, seized on this antisemitic canard to raise the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Now, it is one thing for a second-rate congressman to blame the war with Iraq on the Jews, but for the president of the United States to draw Israel into the Iraq equation, on the eve of a war that he was determined to wage from the moment he entered office, is too much for Jews to swallow. How can we in the Israeli peace camp possibly justify an activist stance when antisemitism is lurking around the corner?
As it is, the Israeli peace camp has virtually gone underground since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Simply put, the murderous rampage of suicide bombers has neutralized us. It was not only distasteful to the general public to see Israelis advocate for moderation by the government in response to Palestinian terrorism, but it was often emotionally impossible for us to demonstrate on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
The Israeli peace camp has also been neutralized by the one-dimensional attitude on the part of American Jewry. Liberal American Jewish voices have been all but silent, without a single word of protest against some of the draconian measures that Israel has pursued to contain terrorism: Administrative detention, extended curfews, house demolitions, confiscation of Palestinian land, indiscriminate killings.
Since the outbreak of the intifada, American Jewry has carved out a political position to the right of Attila the Hun. Should the younger Bush, at the war’s conclusion, do as his father did – tying loan guarantees to a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza – then American Jews just might punish him at the polls, despite the fact that he has been Israel’s most ardent supporter and Ariel Sharon’s most fervent cheerleader.
In light of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s recent statement that the road map is not up for negotiations, American Jews are fearful that a refusal on the part of Israel to accept an American dictate will bring with it a wave of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment. Additionally, American Jews are concerned that an Israeli rebuff of the road map might be construed as Israel not being grateful to the United States for deposing Saddam Hussein – in short, not buying into Bush’s linkage. Given the constellation of Israel’s present government, a rejection of the plan is very possible.
Linking the war in Iraq with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made Bush not only suspect in the eyes of American Jews, but it has also put them on the defensive. Therefore, American Jews will continue to tilt to the right, hoping to soften the administration’s line, primarily to protect their own self-interest – all the while believing that they are acting in Israel’s self-interest. Mainstream American Jewish leaders who have spoken out in favor of the road map or for an imposed settlement from the outside are few and far between.
Where does this all leave the Israeli peace camp, which realizes that the road map could be Israel’s final saving grace? We are stymied. We agree with the content of the map, but Bush has buried content with form, which includes timing. His “linkage” has undermined the peace forces in Israel.
But since the diplomatic cat is out of the proverbial bag, we in the Israeli peace camp must put aside the matter of form and instead concentrate on the content of the road map. We will continue to champion outside intervention. We may even quietly delight in any “linkage” that would stop settlement building, which we see as the Israeli stumbling block to achieving peace.
Nevertheless, we will do so with the full realization that the timing of Bush’s pronouncement gave force to all those who see some merit in Moran’s blatantly antisemitic statement, and to those anti-war demonstrators who equate the Star of David with the Nazi swastika.
Surely that cannot be the kind of linkage that Bush had intended. Unfortunately, that seems to be the message that has come through.
David Forman is chair of Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights and author of “Jewish Schizophrenia in the Land of Israel” (Gefen Publishing House, 2000)
This guest oped ran in the Forward on April 4, 2003
David Forman is Chairman, Rabbis for Human Rights