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Washington Peace Talks: Good for Israel, Good for the United States
Thu, 09/02/2010
Special to the Jewish Week

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched this week in Washington and orchestrated by President Obama are good for Israel and good for the United States. At the White House on Wednesday, President Obama, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas expressed their determination to make peace. Netanyahu turned toward Abbas and called him his “partner in peace.”

All Americans, especially Jews, who want to see a secure Israel, a viable Palestinian state alongside it, a stable Middle East and a respected United States should support Obama’s policies regarding Israel.

Yet Pew Research findings released on August 19 show that Jewish voters who identify or lean Democratic decreased to 60 percent from 72 percent in 2008; while 33 percent now identify or lean Republican, up from 20 percent  in 2008. Furthermore, 65 percent of Jewish Israelis believe U.S. Jews should criticize the Obama administration's policy toward Israel, according to a survey published in June conducted for the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. These poll numbers and cavalier charges that Obama is anti-Israel fly in the face of the facts of his administration’s Israel policies. The contrast between the reality of these policies and the misperception about them could not be starker.

On his first full day in office President Obama phoned the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan to “communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term” (as his Press Secretary put it). On his second day, Obama appointed Senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy to rebuild the Israeli Palestinian peace process.

Many daunting challenges awaited Obama on that first day. These included an economy at the precipice, mounting job losses, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He did not have to add the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He should be applauded for choosing to do so and for remaining steadfast in his commitment.

His decision was pro-Israel. Time is not on Israel’s side if the status quo and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persist. Former Prime Minister Rabin understood this when his government negotiated with Yasser Arafat. So did former Prime Minister Sharon when he pulled Israel out of Gaza.

Demographic trends indicate that more Arabs than Jews will populate the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River in another generation or two. Then Israel will either cease to be a Jewish state, or cease to be a democracy as the Jewish minority would rule over the Arab majority.

Delegitimization of Israel is an increasingly serious phenomenon around the world, even in America. The longer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands continue, the more widespread this new threat becomes.

Another danger, Hezbollah and Hamas, both backed and armed by Iran, is also escalating, as they acquire ever more sophisticated rockets and missiles able to strike deeper inside Israel. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would deprive these terrorist groups of their chief reason for attacks against Israel and deny other Islamist terrorist groups an important recruiting tool.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses yet another threat, and not only to Israel. That is why Obama is leading the international community’s drive to impose tougher sanctions on Tehran.

To be able to get recalcitrant industrial countries on board with tougher sanctions, Obama initially reached out to Iran’s rulers. To convince Arab countries to back new Israeli-Palestinian talks and to pressure Palestinian Authority President Abbas to come to the negotiating table, he needed to reach out to the Arab and Muslim world, as he did in his Cairo address. The Arab League formally endorsed direct talks last month -- a significant achievement.

It is true that Obama made some missteps. One was his failure early on to speak directly to the Israeli people. Another was his administration’s initial emphasis on ending settlement building outside the pre-1967 borders though prior negotiations had no such requirement. This handed Abbas a branch that he climbed up in order to avoid direct talks, which Netanyahu called for. Abbas did not climb down from this position until Arab states, prodded by the Obama administration, insisted that he do so.

Those who charge Obama with being anti-Israel ignore his contributions to extending Israel’s qualitative military advantage over its neighbors. “Israel and the United States held a number of meetings over the past 18 months on maintaining Israel's security standings in the Middle East,” reported the prominent Israeli daily Haaretz on August 9. In May Obama decided to grant Israel $205 million in military aid to procure more Iron Dome missile defense systems. Last October U.S. and Israeli militaries held a major joint air defense exercise along the Israeli coast, “send[ing] a message to Iran, to Hezbollah and to Hamas that the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel remains solid,” noted Eytan Gilboa of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

American and Israeli Jews’ confidence in Obama should be growing. His administration’s policies and actions have led to direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians designed to reach a peace agreement, to tougher sanctions on Iran intended to end Tehran’s nuclear weapons program and to closer U.S.-Israeli military ties. These policies benefit Israel, the United States and Middle East stability. They should be supported by all Americans, Jews and non-Jews, and by Israelis.

Seymour D. Reich is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

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Interested in a pro-Israel, pro-peace perspective on the direct talks? Check out: http://www.jstreet.org/blog/?p=1192.

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