UN Vote Gives U.S. Jews One More Reason to Worry About Israel's Future

The PA’s UN victory is a small one, but if nothing is done, it will lead to others. And with Israel’s international position deteriorating and time running out, American Jews understand that Netanyahu must show greater courage in standing up for the two-state solution.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The Palestinians have their UN victory. And American Jews are again worrying about Israel. In a week’s time, their mood has swung from relief to deep concern.

The Jews of America had rallied behind Prime Minister Netanyahu when he launched the military strikes on Gaza. This was a just war, and the Prime Minister directed it with wisdom and restraint. He worked closely with his American allies. He was sensitive to considerations of world opinion. He knew when to stop. The handling of the war was his finest hour.

In addition, the government of the United States rallied to Israel’s side. Recent tensions were forgotten. The President and the Secretary of State played a direct role in providing Israel with political support. With the Iranian nuclear threat still unresolved, this American-Israeli cooperation was an encouraging sign.

But then, with the UN vote on Thursday, we were all brought down to earth. Yes, it would have been better if Mr. Abbas had not presented the resolution at all. But the vote reminded us that in the Middle East everything is intertwined, and that absent a solution to the problem of settlements and a Palestinian state, no other problem can be resolved. We were reminded of just how alone Israel is on this issue, and that no matter how much we may want the question of a two-state solution to go away, it will not.

And American Jews worry about this because they are a realistic bunch. They know that Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinian issue for the last four years has been one of avoidance. Furthermore, they are expert enough in Israeli politics to know that just when the Prime Minister needs to be more flexible on negotiations with the Palestinians, he will likely be less flexible, and that the party he leads can no longer be said, in any realistic sense, to support a two-state solution at all.

In private conversations, American Jewish leaders see Ehud Barak’s retirement and Dan Meridor’s defeat in the Likud primaries as a major blow. Both men understood American sensitivities and were responsive to American concerns. Both were often sent to represent the government of Israel in discussions with American officials. And both were an address to which American Jewish leaders could turn when they needed assurance that Israel did not plan to be an occupier forever.

But they will soon be gone. And Likud’s delegation in the next Knesset will include Moshe Feiglin, a notorious fanatic and Arab-hater, and others not quite as extreme but equally as opposed to any form of Palestinian independence. And the next Defense Minister is likely to be Bogie Ya’alon, who earlier in the year told Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz that Israel could continue exactly as is for the next hundred years. Who, one wonders, will be sent to represent Israel in America if, as is likely, parties of the right form the next government? And where will American Jews find assurance then?

One of the ironies of the current situation is that American Jews are hearing from their government that if the United States is to consider an attack on Iran, it will need to create a coalition of Sunni Muslim states in the region: Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab emirates. And these Sunni states in turn are demanding progress on the Palestinian front as the price of their support. In other words, an American Jewish community that worked tirelessly to promote American action on Iran now finds that Israel is resisting those steps that would make such action more likely.

There will be much talk in the days ahead of the PA’s refusal to negotiate with Israel, but the stalemate is not a problem of process but of substance. As the recent war demonstrated, Israel claims not to talk to Hamas, but she does; similarly, while Israel and the PA claim not to talk, they do. The question is whether each side is prepared for the kind of concessions that will move the process forward.

American Jews have no illusions; Mahmoud Abbas may not be ready for peace. But what they would like to see, especially now, is a government of Israel that will stand up to the settlers, put its own peace terms on the table, and call Abbas’ bluff.

The PA’s UN victory is a small one, but if nothing is done, it will lead to others. And with Israel’s international position deteriorating and time running out, American Jews understand that Israel must act. President Obama could be helpful here, to be sure. But what they really want to see is an Israeli Prime Minister who will declare his commitment to a two-state solution and take every reasonable step to get there.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been tough and shrewd in confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, and with his actions in Gaza, he has shown vision and resolve. But on the issue of the settlements and the future of the West Bank, his courage has utterly failed him. He must get it back, and soon.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Ultranationalist right-wing protesters hold a placard depicting PM Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and FM Avigdor Lieberman during a demonstration against the Palestinian's UN bid, Nov. 29, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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