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Gary Ackerman to Israeli PMs: Don’t aim for the president’s shoes

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Gary Ackerman never exactly held back during his years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and now that he’s retiring, he’s even less, well, retiring.

He spoke the other night at the Israel Policy Forum gala in New York, and had this advice for Israeli prime ministers, offered in the context of praise for fellow speaker and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert:

He is most famous for his activity as a Prime Minister who went to the White House and did not piss on the President’s shoe.  It’s only common sense.

Ackerman clearly was aiming for Benjamin Netanyahu’s, well, aiming skills.

He was even blunter in referring to Avigdor Liberman’s remarks at the Saban Forum. (Ackerman did not refer to Liberman by name, citing Saban’s off the record rule; Ackerman might not have known that Liberman’s was one of the handful of Saban sessions that were on the record):

Somebody who is a very prominent politician who is not in this room commented during his presentation that part of the problem in dealing with the Palestinians was that they’ve not read Voltaire or Jean Jacque Rousseau and that they don’t have a gross domestic product of $10,000 a person, per capita. And that’s why you can’t deal with them. And when they reach that level, then we can talk to them. How demeaning is that? How disrespectful. How do you get somebody to have confidence that you view them as an equal if you have that kind of attitude? How do you bring them to the table? And where is the table? And why should they show up at the table if that’s the attitude? If we were deciding how to split a pizza and on the way to the table I ate three pieces, you’d start to wonder why the heck should you show up to the table? It’s about dignity and respect.

There’s more in the full remarks below the jump. His key takeaway:

Don’t be bullied by the self-righteous and the narrow-minded, and most of all keep the end in sight: two states for two peoples living in peace and security as neighbors, just like the original Zionist cause. If you will it, it is no dream.

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(The Gen. Dayton Ackerman refers to is Keith Dayton who until recently led the U.S.-led effort to train a Palestinian police force.)

Let me, let me say thank you to General Dayton first. He is a true American hero. He is a person of depth, intelligence, understanding, warmth and compassion. From the minute that I first met him, I knew that he was somebody special. He had such a keen understanding of the underpinnings of the problem that if anybody was going to be able to successfully make progress from working on this issue, it would be Keith Dayton. And he has not disappointed me, or America, or the international concerns that we all share for one minute. General, I stand in admiration of you, everything you’ve done, and your remarkable achievements. I want to salute you. [Applause]

I want to thank everybody here who has come. I want to thank the host committee, I’m not going to name everybody but you know who you are. Thank you for doing what you’re doing and thank you, every one of you, for supporting the IPF and everything that it stands for. Mr. Prime Minister [Olmert], thank you so much for honoring me and each and every one of us, and the things that we have fought for alongside each other for so many years, thank you for coming to be here. The Prime Minister and I spent the better part of the weekend at the Brooking Institution Saban Forum over the last several days, and I want to tell you he stayed for every single session, he didn’t just pop in. He is part of the history of this planet. He is one of the legendary heroes of the history of Israel. And he is most famous for his activity as a Prime Minister who went to the White House and did not piss on the President’s shoe. [Laughter] It’s only common sense. I want to note that my successor in Congress honors us by being here tonight, Grace Meng; Grace, you’ll all get to know her and she is going to be a very worthy successor.

If I may, I want to spend a minute talking about two things that I think are important. One is dignity, and one is time. Two things that are very important as the underpinnings of what I think contribute to so much of the problems we face today. The first: dignity. It has a lot to do with respect. It has a lot to do with justice. It has a lot to do with feeling a respect for who you are and knowing that other people respect you as well and don’t demean or diminish you or look down on you in any way. And that is one of the prime motivations in most people’s lives in one way or another. It impacts on our decisions, it impacts on who we are, it impacts on whether we move forward or not, and it motivates us politically. When you tell a woman that she’s not the ultimate decider of who she is and what she can do with herself and her body, you invade her space and take away her dignity to make her own decisions. [Applause]

When you tell people that you’re going to diminish their right to express their opinion at the ballot box, what do they do? They show up in greater numbers than ever expected because you have invaded their space and who they think they are and that they are as good as anybody else to make their own decisions. Dignity is a big problem in the Middle East. We need to show more of it towards each other. One of the parties at the conference and the rules of our conferences is you don’t mention anything anyone by name as to what they said, but somebody who is a very prominent politician who is not in this room commented during his presentation that part of the problem in dealing with the Palestinians was that they’ve not read Voltaire or Jean Jacque Rousseau and that they don’t have a gross domestic product of $10,000 a person, per capita. And that’s why you can’t deal with them. And when they reach that level, then we can talk to them. How demeaning is that? How disrespectful. How do you get somebody to have confidence that you view them as an equal if you have that kind of attitude? How do you bring them to the table? And where is the table? And why should they show up at the table if that’s the attitude? If we were deciding how to split a pizza and on the way to the table I ate three pieces, you’d start to wonder why the heck should you show up to the table? It’s about dignity and respect.

The Palestinians are people. They do things sometimes that we don’t understand. Some of them act out in ways that are totally more than unacceptable and abominations. And I always wondered, when I first got to be in office, there was all this violence building up, as a firm believer of Israel and everything that it stands for, a firm supporter—how can a mother send her son out with a suicide vest to blow himself up? How, it doesn’t make sense. Mothers don’t do those things. And I thought about it. And we don’t think enough, by the way. And it occurred to me that out of complete desperation she gave up the one thing she had. Her dignity was gone. Her sense that somewhere in this world she had a place, that her future was there, that her people had a future, that her child had a future. So desperate, she had to be. To think that her child would be better off in some other world because he didn’t have a chance to have dignity in this. We reduce people to that, and we don’t understand it. And one of the things that I love about my hero, General Dayton, was the fact that he was the right man for the job because he had the respect of the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership, the Palestinian soldiers that needed to be shaked up, and he had equal respect from everybody on the Israeli side. You afford people their dignity when you have that kind of dignity yourself. We have to learn that better.

Word number two: time. Time is running out; time is short. I‘ve never seen the sands in an hourglass run up. And we have an hourglass that just can’t be turned over when the sands run out. When they run out, time’s up. There are clocks that are running. They’re not just in some of those vests, bomb-type devices. The longer we drag this out, the voices of dissention and hate and misunderstanding and intolerance get heard louder and louder by the people in the street who become more and more frustrated and give up on hope. You know, when you’re in a race time is very important. When you’re in a foot race it’s important. I don’t know a runner who if he or she was ahead by a yard or a mile would want the finish line to be extended further out. If you’re winning, end the race. Cross the finish line. If you have the military advantage, exercise it to it’s best advantage and call the game. The other guy can only get closer. Somebody is going to invent a bomb, buy a bomb, steal a bomb. The difference between the Israelis and the Palestinians in this world is only gonna get narrower. The demographics in population work to the Israelis’ disadvantage. The best time to end the game is when you know you hold all the cards. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. The Palestinians know that. I have a mental balance sheet that I’ve had over the last several years. I’ve told this to many an Israeli Prime Minister and leader, ambassadors, over the years. And on that balance sheet I mentally list all of the things that can go wrong tomorrow morning, what the headline will be, to make my position and Israel’s position more difficult. All the surprises that you have to be creative to think about. And the list goes on and on, who would’ve thought of the things that are happening today three years ago, two years ago. But there’s a long list of things that we can think of today and every country that you can imagine. Who would’ve thought that in Tunisia, somebody who felt that he was denied justice and dignity for selling his wares in the market would light himself on fire and cause the Arab Spring. Certainly none of that has worked to Israel’s advantage. The list goes on and on of the surprises that can happen. On the other sheet, I list all of the surprises that I would like to wake up to within the wildest imagination and creativity that I can muster. Things that would be a great positive surprise to making peace. And I can only think of one thing: the Messiah is gonna come! And therefore I can afford to push this thing as far into the future as I possibly can. I can’t think of anything that’s gonna be a major surprise anywhere that’ll be good tomorrow morning that we would be delighted about. Time is running out. There are voices in the United States that buy into that wrong-sided belief that time is on our side, it’s on Israel’s side, we can extend this on into the future, and there are those people who are practical and reasonable who know and understand that time is the enemy. And when you’re ahead is the time to cut your deal.

My word of advice, and you don’t need it here in the Israel Policy Forum, is to push for change. Work against complacency. Continue to challenge your own thinking. Set aside despair, reject contempt for the other and demand clarity from leaders about their vision of the endgame. Do not give ground on moral boundaries and objections, don’t be bullied by the self-righteous and the narrow-minded, and most of all keep the end in sight: two states for two peoples living in peace and security as neighbors, just like the original Zionist cause. If you will it, it is no dream. Thank you very much. [Applause]

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