Who is to blame for the lack of progress in the now-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and what should be done about it were issues sharply debated during a panel discussion on Sunday evening in Westchester among Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and J Street co-founder Daniel Levy.
More than 400 people filled the sanctuary of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, the sponsor of the program, despite the heavy rain. They heard Lowey and Fleischer assert that Israel is ready and waiting for the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate seriously, while Levy maintained that Israel has yet to make “a serious offer” and that as long as the Jewish settlement population continues to grow, there is no motivation for Palestinian Authority officials to engage.
“It doesn’t make sense for them to come to the table,” said Levy, who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, as Palestinians see the land they envision as their state getting smaller.
Noting that the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown to more than 300,000, he said that, “We [Israel] have to decide if we want peace.”
Fleischer, a member of the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Lowey, a Democrat whose district includes Westchester, also were in agreement — and differed with Levy — on how far the U.S. should go to bring Palestinian and Israeli leaders back to the peace talks.
Lowey praised Mideast envoy George Mitchell for his ongoing trips to the region, and said he is making progress. Fleischer described Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as “good men and honest, but weak” and unable to close a deal.
Both panelists said the parties themselves must resolve their issues, with U.S. help.
Levy went a step further, describing the choice for an embattled Israel in the international community as either submitting to “a hammer” from the likes of the United Nations and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement or a more delicate and nuanced “surgical procedure” at the hands of the U.S.
Much of the evening seemed to pit Lowey and Fleischer against Levy on positions, but there was plenty the two political partisans disagreed on, too.
Though the moderator, Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, praised Temple Israel for sponsoring a program that called for spirited debate in the context of civil discourse and urged avoiding political debates, the political veterans managed to score points for their respective parties.
Fleischer expressed concern about the “growing trend” in national polls that show conservatives significantly more sympathetic to Israel than liberals, and said he wished those on the left were as supportive of the Jewish state as those on the right, drawing applause. And he scored a point with the audience by praising Lowey for “resisting” that move away from Israel.
She, in turn, described President George W. Bush as having lost effectiveness on the Mideast front, which Fleischer took exception to. And so it went, but gently.
Fleischer saved his fire for J Street — and Levy, as a founder of the “pro-Israel, pro peace” lobby — citing its position on a recent U.S. vote in the United Nations on the legality of Jewish settlements; its setting up meetings in Washington for Richard Goldstone, author of the UN report that accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza; and partnering with groups supporting BDS.
Levy countered that each was a factual inaccuracy, insisting, for example, that J Street’s position was not that the U.S. should vote against Israel in the Security Council but to do everything possible to avoid a vote on the legality of settlements — and if the issue came up to a vote, to abstain. (The U.S. vetoed the resolution condemning Israel.)
Levy criticized those who have “personally demonized” Goldstone, who is on the board of Hebrew University and several major Jewish organizations, and said that while the UN report was flawed, it prompted Israel to undertake internal investigations about the behavior of certain Israel Defense Forces soldiers during the Gaza conflict.
On the title topic of the evening, “What does it mean to be pro-Israel?” Fleischer said it is a personal decision for each individual, and Lowey said her caring for Israel is in her gut and stressed that support for Israel must be bipartisan. Levy, who made aliyah from his native England and lived in Israel for many years, said he wants to see people engage seriously with Israel, and that having differing opinions is preferable to not caring.
“We’re not in an era of cheerleading [for Israel],” he said. “This is an era of celebrating Israel’s democracy by defending it.”
All of the panelists agreed that the U.S. should continue its foreign aid program — Lowey chairs the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations — and not make Israel a special case, and they viewed the upheavals in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world as hopeful signs, with cause for concern.
Asked to sum up their key points, Lowey said the U.S.-Israel alliance is strong and needs to continue on the path to a two-state solution.
Levy said Israel must “get out of the business of controlling another people,” a move that would be “good for Israel and in keeping with Jewish values.”
Fleischer said he was proud “that our nation stands strongest by Israel’s side,” regardless of party, “because Israel is a just country and the only stable democracy in the region.”
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