Opinion |

Americans for Peace Now, You Made a Mistake in Appearing Before the UN

At least Lara Friedman didn’t give the hate-filled, anti-Israel screed at the UN offered by B’Tselem. But on the terror and rejectionism on the Palestinian side, she was unaccountably silent.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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A Palestinian youth raises a knife during clashes with Israeli security forces (unseen) in the West Bank city of Tulkarem on October 18, 2015.
A Palestinian youth raises a knife during clashes with Israeli security forces (unseen) in the West Bank city of Tulkarem on October 18, 2015.Credit: AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

I have two things to say to the leadership of Americans for Peace Now, which addressed a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week. The subject of the meeting was “(Israeli) settlements as an obstacle to peace and the two-state solution.”

The first thing is this: You made a mistake in appearing before the UN. The second is: Your presentation was a compelling one, even though it should not have been given to that audience at that time.

Lara Friedman, a senior staff member, spoke on behalf of Americans for Peace Now. The meeting was also addressed by Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

The B’Tselem presentation generated a contentious debate in Israel about whether it was appropriate for B’Tselem to appear at this or any UN forum. But APN’s appearance poses many of the same questions for American Jews. And this means that American Jews should be debating whether APN should have been there at B’Tselem’s side.

The right of APN to appear at such a session is not in question, of course. Americans for Peace Now does admirable work and even if it didn’t, it would be entitled to speak whenever and wherever it pleases. The question is whether or not this particular presentation was wise, politically sensible, and helpful to the cause of a two-state solution. I believe it was not.

To Friedman’s credit, her remarks were restrained and focused, laying out in considerable detail the facts about the growth of West Bank settlements. And she did so while avoiding the rhetorical excesses of B’Tselem’s El-Ad, whose words suggested that Israel is the embodiment of evil.

Israel’s government has claimed that it has not built new settlements and that settlement expansion has been confined to the blocs that will be kept by Israel as part of any peace agreement. Providing sources, numbers, and hard data, Friedman’s presentation demolished those claims. She demonstrated that illegal settlements are established by settler groups and then retroactively legalized by the government. She also demonstrated that since the borders of the “blocs” are never defined, Israel has managed to create some new blocs and territorially expand others. No matter how many times Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it, his insistence that the borders of Israeli settlements remain the same is simply a lie.

Netanyahu is right that settlements did not bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into being. But, as Friedman shows us, the explosive growth of settlements will soon make a two-state solution impossible, and with it any hope for a peaceful resolution of the century-old struggle between Jews and Palestinians.

So what then is the problem with an argument so impressively and elegantly made? To begin with, the absence of context. Friedman makes one mention of the fact that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be held accountable for policies that undermine peace, but she provides not a single example of what that means on the Palestinian side.

Settlements have expanded because of foolish and ultimately disastrous decisions by Israeli leaders. But again and again, those decisions garnered support from Israeli voters because of acts of terror, incitement, political repression, and bloody civil war by the Palestinians. This is not an excuse for ongoing settlement building, but it is part of the picture. If Israel does not have a peace camp today to fight settlement expansion, that is due in no small measure to the chaos, extremism, and rejectionism of Palestinian politics. Friedman was obligated to at least mention these political realities, and she did not.

More important is the simple fact that you cannot be a moral agent if you serve an immoral master. The master in this case was the United Nations, which convened the meeting as an “informal” gathering of the Security Council. The UN members present were Egypt, Senegal, Malaysia, and Venezuela. The first two are hardly objective and the final two are openly anti-Semitic. Is this the appropriate forum for a serious consideration of Israeli settlement policy? For that matter, is any UN setting the appropriate place for such a discussion? And why partner with B’Tselem, which offered little more than a hate-filled, anti-Israel screed?

There are better things for APN to be doing. In less than three weeks, barring an act of God, Hillary Clinton will be elected president of the United States. Clinton will be a good friend to Israel, not because she is a peacenik but because she is not. She believes in American leadership in the world, has hawkish instincts, and distrusts Russia’s intentions in the region. And while she supported the Iran nuclear deal, she is not obsessive about defending it nor naive about its dangers. There is every reason to believe that she will be open to setting out a clear course of action if Iran violates the terms of the deal.

At the same time, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, she will not want broader regional concerns to be sidetracked by the distraction of constant settlement building. The next few months is the right time to think about a new American-Israeli agreement on settlements. The Clinton administration will offer a tougher line on Syria and Iran, providing incentive for Israel to rethink its settlement policy. And a construction freeze outside the settlement blocs will not do an iota of damage to Israel’s security.

In 2004, America's then-president Bush suggested to Israel the following formula: Let’s demarcate the accepted boundaries of every settlement. As long you undertake construction within those boundaries, you can build as much as you want. But promise not to go beyond those boundaries.
Israel refused and has paid a high price. APN and every American Jewish group of the center and the left should return to that formula and urge its acceptance on the governments of both Israel and the United States. No more sideshows at the UN. Too much is at stake.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie

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