No to settlements is yes to peace
Too many American Jewish groups have their heads in the sand when it comes to the damage the settlement project has done to Israel.
Too many American Jewish groups have their heads in the sand when it comes to the damage the settlement project has done to Israel. They embrace those on the American religious right who endorse settlement as a religious principle, without realizing that the influence of these groups is declining. They talk to each other or to themselves, but not to their own children on campus who must deal with this topic every day. Yet those of us who do the actual work of making Israel's case in local communities know full well the damage the settlement issue causes in grassroots America.
You can convince Americans of the miracle of Israel's founding and the justice of her struggle against terror and rejection. You can convince them that it makes demographic and political sense for Israel to trade settlements near Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in return for land elsewhere in Israel. But you cannot convince Americans that it makes sense for an Israel that supports a Palestinian state to maintain a large settler population in the heart of the West Bank.
Too much of the American Jewish community responds to this problem by saying things that convince no one. Settlements are not the issue, they say. They may not be the only issue, but they are certainly a critical issue - and one that we ignore at our peril. Jews should be able to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel, they say. But only if they are prepared to live under Palestinian sovereignty, and the overwhelming majority of settlers are not - which means that what they are really calling for is permanent occupation.
American Jewish leadership is rightly focused on the threat of Iran, and I favor the immediate imposition of tough economic sanctions on Iran - multilateral if possible, unilateral if not. Sanctions are preferable, but no option should be off the table. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, some Arab states will quietly drift into Iran's orbit, while others will move quickly to acquire nuclear weapons. Any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace will evaporate.
Time is not the ally of peace in this situation; inaction is not an option. Those on the left who appear content to do nothing puzzle me. But I ask those on the right: If you fear that you will wake up in a few years and confront a radical Iranian state brandishing nuclear bombs, why do you not fear that you will wake up shortly to confront an emerging consensus - not only from our enemies but also from our friends - that a two-state solution must give way to a one-state solution? The latter possibility is no less likely and in some ways no less dangerous than the first.
We should not demonize the settlers. They have done what Israeli governments, of both the right and the left, have permitted them to do. With strong government leadership, I believe that most will be prepared to relocate. But to those who will not - those who embrace an ugly fundamentalism and misread the Torah for their own purposes - we must be prepared to say: maspik. Enough. No more messianic dreams that have held Israel hostage and put the destiny of the Jewish people in their hands. It would be pragmatic for the government of Israel to offer generous incentives to the settlers to leave so that the process can begin now. And if need be, let military installations be put in place to deal with security issues.
I am troubled by the positions of Arab and Palestinian leaders. I do not know if they are ready for an agreement. While I am convinced that the great majority of the Palestinian people yearn for peace, they have not been well served by those who speak in their name.
But none of this is an argument for maintaining or expanding ideological settlements. If it is true that peace is not possible at this moment, this is not a reason to advocate policies that will make it impossible for there ever to be peace.
It is certainly not an argument against U.S. President Barack Obama doing all he can to promote an agreement. Precisely because the prospects for peace are uncertain, it is more important than ever for the administration to search out every possibility for moving forward. The president has been right to reach out to Palestinians, the Arab world and the Muslim world. He, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell know that Middle East peace requires an American presence and that nothing happens unless the United States is involved. They are absolutely correct that the status quo does not serve Israel's interests.
If Palestinian moderates are not strengthened, the only party left will be Hamas. Therefore, reaching out to the moderates and strengthening their hand is a vital and pressing interest of the U.S. government.
The government of Israel needs to do everything it can to maintain the support of the American government and the American people, and to demonstrate Jerusalem's commitment to a two-state solution and to a Jewish and democratic Israel. American Jews, untiring partners in the building of Zion, need to join in this effort. After all, Israel's fate rests not only in the hands of Israel's citizens, but also in the hands of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America.
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