Friday, May 27, 2011

A Proposal for Mideast Talks and Other Reflections on the Washington Week that Was

A Proposal for Mideast Talks and Other Reflections on the Washington Week that Was

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Special to the Jewish Week

It's been a crazy week in the ongoing soap opera, "Bibi and 'Bama," and given the reception Prime Minister Netanyahu got in Congress, I think the GOP wishes Netanyahu could be their standard bearer in 2012. There are so many fascinating dynamics at work here that it would make for a top notch TV comedy if the situation weren't deathly serious.

First, let me make a modest proposal.

For two sides that speak about wanting to get to the table with no preconditions, now both the Israelis and Palestinians have set-in-stone preconditions. So call me naïve, but isn't it now possible to strike a grand bargain to get us back to talks, one that would allow both Netanyahu and Abbas to save face with their own people? All they have to do is give in on the other side's preconditions.

Here's the grand tradeoff. A six month Israeli moratorium on settlement construction (outside Jerusalem and the three core settlement blocs) for a Palestinian pledge not to go to the UN or declare statehood unilaterally, plus an agreed upon formula to marginalize Hamas. Six months would get us beyond September and give peace a chance.

Yes I know that both sides would likely reject it. It makes too much sense. But it's worth calling their bluff to see who is dumb enough to reject it first. For Israel, accepting this bargain would score some needed brownie points with the Europeans. It could help Obama procure a few more votes this fall at the UN - and every vote will be important.
If the Palestinians reject it, they will pay the price in September when they seek overwhelming endorsement of their unilateral declaration of statehood.

But if Abbas accepts this simultaneous moratorium and Netanyahu refuses, Bibi would pay a steep price domestically and an even deeper one internationally. He would be roundly declared a rejectionist and even his allies in Congress would get antsy.

At one AIPAC session I attended, a speaker summed up the situation perfectly. Israel has no partner to talk with and no creative ideas to share. So all sides seem content to run out the clock to September.

The lack of creativity on Israel's part is disturbing, but so is Abbas' apparent shift to the Dark Side. Everyone believes that the West Bank is more peaceful, free and prosperous than it ever has been, but most also believe that more violence is inevitable without an agreement.

Memo to Dennis Ross: it's worth a shot. It would provide what the Administration is looking for, a credible alternative to Palestinian unilateralism.

Some other observations from the AIPAC conference:

- Despite the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, the US-Israel relationship is, as both leaders kept saying, "iron clad." Strategically, more is being shared than ever.
- One can only be in awe of what AIPAC has accomplished in cementing that relationship.

When Netanyahu addressed members of Congress at the Capitol, he had already seen more than two-thirds of them the night before at the AIPAC banquet. Many of the applause lines were the same, the bipartisanship was the same - it was almost as if the address on the Hill was an extension of the AIPAC policy conference itself, and the members of Congress have become just a few hundred more AIPAC delegates.

And when the Prime Minister was finished and the members of Congress returned to their offices, thousands of AIPAC attendees were there to greet them. The timing was breath-taking. The lobby is powerful, but that power stems not from any cynical manipulation of the system, but from the rightness of the cause and the power of the dream that is the state of Israel, a vision that Americans and Israelis share.

- AIPAC has its flaws, but we would be in sorry shape without it. Iran would possibly have a nuclear weapon by now. Israel would likely be a wedge issue in American politics. And the polls would not be showing astronomical support for Israel that cuts across the board among American demographic groups.

- But it's annoying that the conference sometimes looks more like an "Up with People" concert. Yes, the plenaries are drained of spontaneity, but they stay on message and that message is for the most part good.

- That message could also be interpreted as a blank check for a government with some questionable policies. Staying on message means that little or no criticism of the government is allowed (even Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, was remarkably tame), and the veneer displayed is one of Jewish unity along with Israeli-American partnership. Yet we all know that the image is illusory.

AIPAC's job is neither to represent American Jewry nor to pass judgment on Israel's policies. They keep their eyes on a bigger prize. But that expensive façade comes at a cost. What kind of cost? We'll see in September - or beyond.

- For rabbis, AIPAC conferences are a rare opportunity to meet with a large group of rabbis from all denominations - as well as other clergy. That in itself makes the trip worthwhile. Once you get away from the big hall, lots of interesting things are happening.

- At AIPAC, noone mentioned J Street by name. It was as if, by some unwritten rule, it has become the Voldemort of the Jewish establishment. People alluded to "other lobbying groups" of course; it was the elephant not in the room.

One rabbi said something that resonated with me. J-Street and AIPAC are complementary. AIPAC is about Israel's supporters impacting the policies of the American government and J-Street is about influencing the policies of the Israeli government. I'm sure neither J-Street nor AIPAC would agree with that formulation, but it works for me. While this AIPAC conference had more college students than ever before (1,500), J-Street’s recent conference had a thousand.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I wondered, to have a conference that all 2,500 could have attended.

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