Peace Talks Failure Tested U.S. Jewish Groups

As the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations crumbled, where was the leadership that the mainstream U.S. Jewish community claims to uphold so diligently?

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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011.Credit: AP
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

Since the peace talks were laid to rest last month, American Jewish groups have failed to articulate a productive vision moving forward. Instead, many have retreated to the politics of blame; lambasting the Palestinians and even the United States without a hint of self-reflection about Israel’s or even their own role in harming the talks.

After Hamas and Fatah signed a unity agreement, Israel pulled out of the dying peace talks immediately, and then accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of putting the “final nail in the coffin,” the organized Jewish community in the U.S. was just as adamant. AIPAC declared that the move “gravely undermines the cause of peace.” The American Jewish Committee (AJC) claimed that the accord “undermines any chance for peace.”

To be sure, American Jews shouldn’t blindly embrace Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization. Furthermore, Abbas’s timing was poor, and unlikely to engender confidence from the Israelis. Yet, while Hamas may be detestable, but they’re an important player in the conflict. How did we manage to avoid taking that into account?

Given that the Palestinians want some sort of unity, and that Israel cannot forge a permanent peace with a divided Palestinian government, why not, as Haaretz’s Mathew Kalman implored, “put Hamas to the test,” as we did, successfully, with the PLO? American Jewish institutions ignored the opportunity for Israel to make peace with one of its greatest enemies. We could act as Israel’s partner, and pledge our support as it takes the hard risks entailed by diplomatically dealing with Hamas. Instead, we criticized the Palestinians, yet again, in the empty hope that it would be enough to change their minds.

American Jewish groups, joined by far-right American allies, also responded weakly to John Kerry’s recent remarks, which betrayed his fear that Israel might become an apartheid state. The Emergency Coalition for Israel (ECI), joined by Senator Ted Cruz, was so outraged by this characterization, that they called for Kerry’s resignation. AIPAC issued a statement harshly condemning Kerry, stating “Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate.”

American Jews created a firestorm so extreme, that Kerry was forced to walk back his comments.

It’s worth noting what AIPAC and the larger community didn’t do; they failed to question the brutal occupation that might lead a sitting Secretary of State, Israeli prime ministers, a defense minister and former head of the Shin Bet to fear for such a dark future for Israelis and Palestinians. They pushed Kerry until he backtracked, but never thought to push against the reality of occupation, conflict, violence and humiliation on the ground that moved him to speak so frankly. American Jewish groups were so interested in policing the dialogue itself, that they completely lost sight of Kerry’s point: Israel’s policies in the West Bank implicate its future.

AIPAC went further still. They said that advocates of peace should be “urging President Abbas to revoke his destructive agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas.” Rejecting the Palestinian desire for unity is somehow supposed to get Abbas back to the negotiating table. This logic is emblematic of our failure to take advantage of opportunities and see challenges with clear eyes.

American Jews are so good at recognizing the threat Hamas poses, and yet, refused to take advantage of this opportunity to neutralize it. American Jews wax endlessly about Israel’s dangerous neighborhood and existential threats, but will not acknowledge those caused by Israel’s policy and our own inaction. We should not criticize Hamas to distract from the occupation; we should be honest about their undeniable roles in Israel’s future.

As tempting as it might be, we cannot just wave a rhetorical wand to vanish Hamas. We cannot shut down debate about the occupation in the hopes that it will mitigate its effects. It’s worth noting that we do the same thing domestically. The Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to shut out J Street from the communal conversation, but to what end? Criticizing language and shutting out dissenting voices dampens America’s ability to act productively to resolve the conflict, and denies Israel a critical safety net for the risks it must take to avert self-imposed catastrophe.

As the peace talks crumbled, where was the leadership that the mainstream Jewish community claims to so diligently uphold? American Jews are Israel’s most powerful diaspora partners. If we stand by while Kerry’s words become reality, then we are complicit in endangering Israel’s future, and facilitating a moral disaster for the Palestinians.

Wishing away political realities without offering a solution will further endanger the collective futures of American Jewry, Israelis and Palestinians. Through negligence and rejectionism, we must not be the ones who fulfill Kerry’s prophecy.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the board of directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter, or send him an email.