Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Response to Jerry Haber's objections to "For the Sake of Zion," by Gidon D. Remba

Dear Jerry,

I read your thoughtful and incisive analysis of the “For the Sake of Zion” statement before I decided to circulate and endorse it. In fact, I had considered writing a response to your post along with the endorsement, but in the end I felt that this wasn’t the proper place and time for such a discussion. My considered opinion is that it does far more good than harm to encourage as many American Jews as possible to read and sign this statement.

I reached this conclusion despite the fact that I agree with most of your substantive criticisms of the statement. In some respects, it is decidedly not the statement that I would have written. In fact, if you were to write a different statement reflecting your own view of what should be done now, I would probably agree with much, and might be willing to endorse it and encourage others to do so as well.

I too was disappointed with the statement’s failure to call for pressure on both Israel and the Arabs to make the necessary concessions to reach a peace deal. In fact, I support blunt and brutal pressure – at the appropriate times and in the right ways – on Israel and the Arabs of just the kind that Carter, Kissinger, Ford and Bush pere employed to help achieve breakthroughs for peace which have greatly served Israel’s security and well-being (as I’ve advocated in detail in a number of my published opinion essays - for example, "Israel, Settlements and the 'P' Word," and "What Bush and Olmert Could Learn from Begin and Sadat" ). I find the JCall statement preferable on these and other grounds.

On the other hand, "For the Sake of Zion" endorses pressure using a euphemism that will be less dissonant to most American Jewish ears: “we endorse the American government’s vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to advance.” (As in "Mr. Netanyahu, we encourage your government to accept x if you'd like the United States to do y - where y might represent vetoing certain anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council, or taking certain steps on sanctioning Iran or on enhancing US-Israeli security cooperation: I call this the "mailed carrot" approach.)

The statement appropriately calls on Israel to “immediately to cease construction of housing in the disputed territories” – which includes East Jerusalem, since its status is clearly disputed, despite Israel’s claims of eternal and exclusive sovereignty over it all. Diplomatic pressure is one issue on which you’ve not fairly represented the “liberal Zionist” statement – and failed to recognize the value of choosing language in the present political context which will be politically effective in appealing to the American Jewish center, which liberal Zionist groups like J Street seek to mobilize in support of the Obama administration’s peace efforts.

You observe that “the call to immediately cease construction in the occupied territories” can’t be taken very seriously “when that call was already made years ago by George W. Bush." I disagree entirely. When George W. Bush made such statements he was viewed in many precincts of the American Jewish community as throwing a sop to the Arabs – to the Saudis and America’s other Arab allies. These Bush statements were not viewed by such Jews as pro-Israel. The point of a statement that has all the hallmarks of a deep attachment to Israel and to Zionism is that it is prominent pro-Israel American Jews who are calling for an immediate end to construction in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem – the area which, when Obama called for a settlement freeze there, prompted loud protestations from Netanyahu and various American Jewish leaders, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations under Obama’s Hyde Park pal Alan Solow (leading to much – unfounded, but noisy - talk of disappointment with Obama on Israel by some American Jews). So yes, it is important for American Jews - and American and Palestinian leaders - to hear other American Jews say what George W. Bush has already said: because for prominent American Jews to say it is still quite controversial in the organized American Jewish community, sparking protests in major segments of the "Jewish establishment."

I would even go so far as to say that it is politically valuable for there to be statements in which prominent American Jews call for the Palestinians to disavow their claimed right of refugee return to Israel, while also decrying the occupation and the settlements and calling for an immediate and comprehensive freeze on Israeli construction not only in the West Bank but even in Arab neighborhoods in Israel’s ostensibly “unified capital” of Jerusalem. I am thoroughly convinced of the political utility of such statements in building American Jewish support for peace efforts, even though I agree entirely that the Palestinians cannot be expected to disavow their claimed right of return until a final, comprehensive peace agreement is achieved.

But here’s the rub. You’ve invited writers of the petition to show you where you have offered an implausible reading of the petition. I am not a writer of the petition, only an endorser, but I’m convinced that you’ve misread the line about where the statement suggests the Palestinian capital will be situated. The statement says that it will be located in the Arab neighborhoods of an expanded Jerusalem; that is accurate and unobjectionable, and reflects the principle animating the Clinton parameters that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem will become part of the Palestinian state, while Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will become part of Israel. The Jerusalem referred to in those parameters is obviously “the expanded Jerusalem” – Jerusalem as defined by something like its current expanded municipal boundaries.

Nothing in this statement implies that the Palestinian capital would be located outside of Jordanian East Jerusalem. The statement implies that the capital will be in the Arab neighborhoods of an expanded Jerusalem, which does not preclude its being located in Jordanian East Jerusalem. The language here simply includes all Arab neighborhoods in the expanded Jerusalem – encompassing the inner and outer neighborhoods – as the likely locus of the capital of the Palestinian state. I don’t agree with your reading that “Sheikh Jarrah or the Damascus Gate or Silwan are not in ‘expanded’ Jerusalem (expanded by Israel); they are in Jerusalem.” These neighborhoods are indeed in the expanded Jerusalem – Jerusalem as defined by the expanded Israeli municipal boundaries.

To be sure, there is an ambiguity in the wording which permits your reading, but it is an uncharitable interpretation of the wording which is not mandated by the language used, and very probably not the intent of the statement. It’s possible, on the other hand, that the statement’s crafters wanted this sort of ambiguity to make the statement palatable to more Jews; if so, I see it as a legitimate effort to appeal to a broad Jewish public, since it in no way precludes what I suspect you and I would consider a just allocation of sovereignty in Jerusalem if there is to be a two-state solution.

Clearly, the statement sought to avoid specifics on the allocation of sovereignty on the Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif, along with other aspects of what it will take to close the deal (such as dismantling most West Bank settlements). Again, you and I might agree on where the Palestinians should have sovereignty – I support a peace treaty which allots to the Palestinians sovereignty over the Haram, excluding the Kotel. "For the Sake of Zion," like the Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles, skirts this issue.

Why did I decide to endorse the statement, these objections to your reading notwithstanding? The statement consists of seven paragraphs; all of your objections revolve around the specifics contained in a single paragraph – the fifth. But for that paragraph, I suspect that you would find the statement largely positive and worthy of support. To reiterate, I am in agreement with your criticisms of paragraph five – except for the point about Jerusalem, as noted above. But I disagree entirely that the problems with paragraph 5 outweigh the good that the other 6 paragraphs can do in setting an example for, and contributing to the process of persuading and educating, centrist and moderately rightist American Jews, and in reflecting a mainstream moderate pro-Israel Jewish voice supportive of the Obama administration.

Much as states sometimes sign treaties and diplomatic agreements while noting their reservations, I would have preferred to sign the statement with an enumeration of my reservations and objections to the language in paragraph 5, which panders to the American Jewish right. But American Jews need to hear

  • that a group of prominent American Jews who care deeply about Israel believe that the occupation, the settlements and Israeli construction in East Jerusalem are endangering Israel and its quest for security and a peace agreement with its neighbors;

  • that the Obama administration’s “vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to advance” is good for Israel;

  • that the future security and welfare of the State of Israel depends on achieving a two-state solution soon;

  • that Israel faces apartheid and the end of the Zionist dream of as Israel as a Jewish democratic state if it does not achieve a two-state solution in the near term;

  • that despite the skeptics, there is hope in the current round of indirect negotiations, particularly if the Obama administration plays the proper constructive role in overseeing and guiding the talks, offering both tasty carrots and very sharp sticks to both sides when appropriate;

  • and finally, that even while Israeli citizens will ultimately decide their future, American Jews have the right and the obligation to express their views, and to critique decisions of the Israeli government which, in their view, undermine the prospects for Middle East peace and the future of the largest Jewish community in the world and of the Jewish state (along with America’s national security).

While I realize that you may not endorse the statement’s affirmation of the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,” I am confident that you recognize that no statement in support of Palestinian-Israeli peace can be politically efficacious, both in the American Jewish community and in the international arena, if it does not affirm the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. And I say this, and am convinced of its truth, despite my own opposition to right-wing demands that the Palestinians should be required to affirm Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state – an unreasonable and unnecessary demand, in my pragmatic Zionist view. (In this regard, I concur wholeheartedly with an oped in the Forward by Rabbi Eric Yoffie - "How Not to Protect the Jewish State" - which argued against such demands.)

In sum, I believe you’ve attached too much weight to the problems in paragraph 5, and not enough to the strengths in the other six paragraphs. Had I been asked to contribute to the formulation of this statement, I would have vigorously protested some of the language in paragraph 5. It goes against what I believe is needed to help the parties advance towards peace, and reach a just and viable solution.

But now that the statement is out, I am convinced that it does more political good – however much good a statement of this sort can achieve – to encourage American Jews to support this statement for the considerable value it bears. You and I and others can object on our blogs to points in the statement; but to fail to support a petition which says what the other six paragraphs say is politically unwise and does a disservice to the project of building American Jewish support for Israeli-Arab peace.


Doni Remba

Jerry Haber acknowledged the validity of some of my points in a response he posted on his Magnes Zionist blog: http://themagneszionist.blogspot.com/2010/05/further-thoughts-on-the-sake-of-zion.html