Op-Ed: Mr. President, time to ‘recalibrate’ on Middle East

NEW YORK (JTA) — I was most privileged on July 13 to be invited along with 16 other Jewish leaders to meet with President Obama at the White House. Much has been written about this historic meeting; it’s hard to believe there have been so many commentaries on a one-hour session.

Everyone who was present has their own version of what happened, and I’m no different. For me, the meeting was a chance to dialogue with a new administration and to make certain that the views of the Orthodox Union and our constituent body are well represented.

After the meeting, I surmised that the administration was asking a great deal of Israel while requesting little from the Arab world.

President Obama apparently likes the word “recalibrate.” I’ve heard him use it on many occasions. He said, “We have to recalibrate the perception that little is being asked of the Arab world, and specifically the Palestinians.”

The president assured us that in private discussions, Arabs have agreed to stop the incitement and to recognize Israel’s legitimate right to be a homeland for the Jewish people, but they have yet to express this publicly. We were assured that in the near future there would be significant changes in the news releases and speeches given by moderate Arab leaders. The president felt that with a more evenhanded diplomatic posture, the Arab world would rise to the occasion.

It is time to look at what has happened since we’ve had our meeting. I have not heard one Arab leader publicly recognize Israel’s legitimate right to be a Jewish homeland and a free democratic society in the Middle East. I have not heard one Arab leader publicly recognize that Israel is a nation among the nations of the world. I have not heard one Arab leader call for the elimination of incitement and hatred against the State of Israel. I have not heard one Arab leader recommend that the educational tools used to indoctrinate hatred against Israel be eliminated and new textbooks published in which the State of Israel is displayed on the geographic map of the Middle East.

Also, I did not hear any words of conciliation and moderation at the recent Fatah convention. What I did hear were statements praising suicide bombers and threatening violence, as well as the ridiculous claim accusing Israel of assassinating Arafat — although the Fatah delegates acknowledged there was no proof.

What I did hear at the convention is that Palestinians who supposedly were expelled in 1948 should be able to return to their homes. What I did hear is that Israel had no justification to defend itself after waiting seven years and absorbing tens of thousands of missiles fired at its people. What I did hear is a Palestinian leader warning the Arab states not to normalize their ties with Israel. (“Normalization of Israel’s ties with the Arab countries before the occupation ends in the Palestinian areas is the last thing that the Palestinians should have to experience," said Abu El-Izz Dajani, a former PLO ambassador.) What I did hear is Jordan calling on Saudi Arabia to publicly reject appeals to improve relations with Israel.

After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told her that confidence-building measures that the United States wants the Arab states to take will not produce a resolution to the conflict. So it seems that the Arab world has totally rejected President Obama’s requests. I therefore eagerly await the change in approach that the president promised us on July 13.

In the interim, the Obama administration has continued to press the settlements issue with Israel, making its displeasure over the eviction of Arab residents from an East Jerusalem building clear in conversations with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

Our meeting with President Obama was the beginning of a dialogue and so I, as president of the Orthodox Union, representing the fastest growing segment of Jewish life, respectfully ask the president to reconsider his position in relationship to Israel. At that meeting the president was urged that there be no daylight between Israel and United States — the stronger the relationship, the greater the opportunity for peace.

The Arab world has sent a clear message to President Obama: “We will not change our rhetoric and we will not change our positions. Continue to press Israel, force them to give back land and compromise their security in exchange for words of hatred from moderate Arab leaders.”

So I now ask you, Mr. President, if you are truly sincere about finding peace in the Middle East, is it not the time to recalibrate your position again? May I suggest that you make it abundantly clear that the opportunity for peace rests clearly on the shoulders of the Arab world. Once they accept Israel completely and reject terrorism and incitement, and once the relationship between the United States and Israel is solidified to assure the world that there is no daylight, then and only then will the seeds of true peace be planted in the Middle East.

(Stephen J. Savitsky is the president of the Orthodox Union.)

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