American Jews’ Plea to Netanyahu: Offer an Israeli Peace Initiative Now

No-one, young U.S. Jews, members of Congress, White House officials, even Israel’s senior military leaders, knows where Netanyahu is going or what he wants. That makes it all too easy to assert that Israel doesn’t really want peace.

Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.
Bloomberg

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is almost upon us. I will spend it this year at my home in New Jersey, but I will be sorry that I am not in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. I have been a proud Israel activist all of my life, but the problem with being an activist is that when you spend so much time focusing on Israel as a cause, you sometimes lose touch with Israel as a place. Thus, I always find myself thinking how much I would prefer to be there for Yom Haatzmaut — for the sounds, the smells, the arguments, the passions, and the language of the Jewish state.

I am also reminded every Independence Day of how blessed we are. I know that Jews today are privileged to do what Moses was never permitted to do: Walk on the soil of the Land of Israel.  And not only that. Jews can build on the land, plant on it, and watch children grow on it, speaking the language of the Hebrew Bible.

As I have said many times, the Jewish state is a cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving. It has restored the Jewish people to national sovereignty after 2000 years. It has returned us to history. And it has given our embattled people the means to control our destiny. This involves — let’s be clear — exercising power, mastering the gun, and sometimes, tragically, misusing power. But it is far better to have power than to be powerless in a dangerous world, because in the absence of power, all other Jewish values can be turned to dust.  

But my concerns about Israel do not disappear on Independence Day. Not for a second. Yes, Palestinian rejectionism is the primary reason that there is no peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But I also know that it is not the only reason. And there is no denying that without dignity for the Palestinians, there will be no dignity for Israelis. There is no denying as well that Israel’s position has eroded among her many friends and supporters, even in Europe and America, and even among segments of the Jewish community.  

And so I turn to Israel’s leaders, and the prime minister in particular, and plead with him to step up. I do not expect him to magically bring peace, which requires a Palestinian partner that we have yet to see. But I do ask him to do those things that he can do and that most Israelis and Jews everywhere would welcome and applaud this year on Yom Haatzmaut.

Great leaders shape their reputations by making tough calls on big issues. Prime Minister Begin withdrew from Sinai, Rabin committed to Oslo, and Sharon pulled out of Gaza. Right or wrong, they were risk-takers and big-picture leaders. But Netanyahu, a shrewd and calculating politician, likes to put off dealing with the big questions. What is his position on preventing a bi-national state, or on dealing with Hamas, or on stopping the third intifada? We don’t know because he refuses to tell us. Netanyahu is not only cautious but careful to the point of paralysis, usually a hostage to his rightwing base. 

But the problem is that his strategy is backfiring. It is true that Israel should not be blamed for the current diplomatic impasse, and Hamas thirsts for Israel’s blood. But absent an Israeli initiative, it is too easy to believe that Israel does not really want peace. Anyone who has spent even a week on an American college campus knows that the problem is not only the Israel-haters in BDS but the anguished questions of Israel-lovers who want to know why Netanyahu continues to build settlements if he really wants a Jewish and democratic Israel. Why, young Jews ask, does the prime minister not put a peace plan on the table? Why does he not tell us what he envisions as Israel’s borders? Why does he not talk of the need to separate from the Palestinians, negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, and, when security can be assured, create two states for two peoples? How can it be in that in Netanyahu’s fourth term as Prime Minister we do not know where he is going or what exactly he wants?  

And it not only young Jews who ask these questions. Administration officials and members of Congress are asking the same thing, even if they do not say so aloud during election season. According to repeated reports from the Israeli press, Israel’s senior military leaders are asking these questions too.  

What should Mr. Netanyahu do on this Yom Haatzmaut? In addition to the speeches and the ceremonies, he should at the very least put forward an Israeli initiative on Gaza and on freezing construction in the settlements outside the settlement blocs. If such a plan were accepted by the Palestinians, it would be to Israel’s benefit. If it were rejected, blame would rest where it belongs. And such a move would be welcomed in Washington, cheered in the Jewish community, and embraced on campus, where it would do more than any of the dozens of other plans to make Israel’s case and battle BDS.  

This is the gift that we need from the prime minister on Independence Day. We turn to him not with a threat or a demand but with a plea: We American Jews are untiring partners in the building of Zion. We believe that Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood and her cause is just. We see our task as Diaspora Jews to rally the Jewish people to Israel’s side. But as Israel’s long-time elected leader, you have a task as well. There are actions you can take that will advance Israel’s interests, affirm her values, strike a blow against her enemies, and strengthen the Jewish people everywhere. This is the time. Offer an Israeli peace initiative now.  

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.