Why U.S. Jews Must Embrace Kerry's Appeal to Put Pressure on Netanyahu

Stunned by Israel’s shrug-your-shoulders, everything-will-be-fine approach to peace negotiations, the U.S. administration is saying with impressive clarity: If Israel stands alone in the world, even the support of America will not be enough.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, June 3, 2013.
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, June 3, 2013.Credit: AP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

When it comes to Israel, there are two kinds of Jews: Those who believe that the occupation of the West Bank can go on forever, and those who don’t.

This is not the same division as that which exists between hawks and doves. We know that Israeli hawks are often content to see the occupation continue, but many doves who hate their country’s presence in the territories have also come to see it as a necessary evil that is likely to last for the indefinite future. And many American Jews have adopted the same mindset. Like their Israeli counterparts in both camps, they assume, whether they love the occupation or hate it, that is has been around for 46 years and it will be around for a lot more.

This past week, Secretary of State Kerry addressed himself to the nothing-can-ever-change view of things. Speaking with a power and passion that we don’t always hear from him, Kerry delivered a simple, eminently clear message: Time is up. Disaster is at hand. And therefore a way must be found to arrive at a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that will end the occupation. Not in the distant future, but very soon. And Americans Jews must help.

This is not the way that senior Administration officials usually talk to Jewish groups about Israel. They hint, imply, suggest, and often equivocate. They are careful not to offend. But Mr. Kerry chose bluntness and candor on his way to an emphatic conclusion: “The status quo is simply not sustainable.” This was a speech, it should be said, that was lovingly delivered; Kerry, after all, is a man with impeccable pro-Israel credentials, and his personal concern and devotion to Israel were amply on display.

While the audience was appreciative, his words will garner little support from the American Jewish right, which has been contemptuous of Kerry’s efforts from the beginning. Its leaders are convinced that the peace Kerry is so aggressively advocating can never be reached. (For a sample of initial responses to the speech, see here.)

But the purpose of this address was not at all to offer possible details of an agreement; it was to take on the thinking of those in America—and in Israel—who are convinced that Israel can continue with things as they are.

Israel absolutely cannot, Mr. Kerry said. And the specifics came in explaining what that meant, focusing on the disastrous deterioration of Israel’s international position and the dire consequences for the Palestinian Authority and for security in the territories if progress is not made.

In private conversations, Administration officials have expanded on these points, laying out just how serious they believe the situation to be: European backing for Israel, already collapsing, will disappear; the Palestinians will go to the International Criminal Court over settlements and will win support throughout the world; and Mr. Abbas—who, whatever one thinks of him, opposes violence and terror—will step down a failure, to be replaced by who-knows-what, or perhaps by nothing at all.

None of this guarantees peace, of course. The Americans are confident that an opening now exists for peace, but they are not starry-eyed about Palestinian realities. And there is not the slightest hint that American support for Israel will be withdrawn if peace efforts fail. But the Americans are saying that if Israel stands alone in the world, even the support of America will not be enough.

There is, of course, an implied criticism here, even if it is not stated. Prime Minister Netanyahu talks about peace, but his coalition is concerned with other things, and his coalition agreement does not even contain a commitment to a two-state solution. Certain that failure to move forward will be catastrophic, the Secretary of State wants to generate a sense of urgency from Israel that does not now exist, and he wants the support of American Jews. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the Americans are simply stunned by Israel’s shrug-your-shoulders, everything-will-be-fine approach; Israel’s government, it appears, neither believes in the possibility of peace nor has any real peace plan of her own. In American eyes, this is a disastrous misreading of what is happening in the region and the world.

Given all that we know of the history of the conflict, it is far from certain that peace can be achieved. Nonetheless, Kerry’s central message was exactly on target: The status quo is undermining Israel’s interests, and Israel must do everything possible—with an urgency and openness not now apparent—to move forward the diplomatic process. For expressing this message with such impressive clarity, Mr. Kerry deserves our gratitude and our thanks.

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.

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