Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel came away from his private White House lunch with President Barack Obama last week with “a good feeling” about the administration’s commitment to Israel, he told The Jewish Week the next day in an exclusive interview. (See the full story on our Web site.)
“There was no small talk; it was all substance,” he said of the meeting, with just the two men in the room. “I spoke about what Jerusalem means to me. I said the Muslims have Mecca and we have Jerusalem.”
He added that when he pointed out that Israel cannot sustain another catastrophe, the president “reiterated his total commitment to Israel and its security.”
In The Jewish Week interview, Wiesel expressed disappointment with those who accuse Obama of anti-Israel sentiments.
But there are some in our community who feel that Wiesel is naïve about such matters, being used by the president on the Mideast, and offering a misleadingly romantic view of Jerusalem.
In his recent full-page ad in several major newspapers here and in Israel extolling Jerusalem, Wiesel wrote that, “for me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.”
Critics counter that Jerusalem is very much about politics and that Wiesel only sees the Jerusalem he wants to see. Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli cabinet minister, charged that Wiesel had not taken into account the negative treatment of Arabs in Jerusalem, and asserted that Wiesel’s description of Jerusalem “confuse(s) fundamental issues and confound(s) the reader.”
But one-sided views can go either way. How many critics acknowledge that prior to 1967, when Jordan controlled Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to visit the Old City, where synagogues were destroyed and ancient Jewish gravestones used to pave the streets? Since the Six-Day War, Jerusalem’s holy sites have been open to all, and Christians, Jews and Arabs live in the city.
In addition, Wiesel’s advice for Obama hardly seemed naïve. He suggested to the president that Israel knows how to resist pressure but may be more susceptible to “seduction.”
He and others have urged the president to go to Israel soon and speak to the country’s leaders and citizens to assuage their concerns about the administration’s perceived tilt toward the Palestinian side. Such a visit would be more meaningful than ongoing reiterations of Washington’s commitment to this country’s special relationship with Israel. The rhetoric is comforting but only up to a point when we’ve witnessed the administration calling out Israel on its settlement and Jerusalem policies while the Palestinians hang back, enjoying the U.S.-Israel tension.
Obama wants the new proximity talks to accelerate and lead to direct negotiations between the parties. But only an Israel that fully trusts Washington can even consider making further sacrifices for peace. A presidential trip to Israel may go a long way toward improving the climate.
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