Bayh-Risch letter tops 70 (but more than half of Jewish senators don’t sign)


Seventy-one senators ended up signing the AIPAC-backed letter to President Obama supporting his effort to encourage Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.

That comes after Americans for Peace Now and other left-wing pro-Israel groups — including Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and J Street — made a battleground of the document, which was circulated by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and James Risch, (R-Idaho). They called on senators not to sign it unless it is amended to include mention of steps that all the parties in the Middle East need to take towards peace — especially Israel’s need to stop settlement construction.

The letter, though, was held open a few more days than planned in order to continue to gather signatures — the total of 71 was announced on Monday, but the original "Dear Colleague" letter said the letter was scheduled to close the prior Wednesday. The letter gained around 30 signatories since Wednesday morning.

Just six of the 13 Jewish senators signed the missive — Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Among those not signing the letter were Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The Bayh-Risch letter says that "over the past few months Israel has taken concrete measures to reaffirm its commitment to advancing the peace process," such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backing a two-state solution and the removal of roadblocks and other measures to "improve the daily lives of Palestinians."

"We encourage Arab leaders to take similar tangible steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process," write the senators. "Such steps could include ending the Arab League boycott of Israel, meeting openly with Israeli officials, establishing open trade relations with Israel, issuing visas to Israeli citizens, and inviting Israelis to participate in academic and professional conferences and sporting events. We also believe that Arab states must immediately and permanently end official propaganda campaigns which demonize Israel and Jews."

APN said that "the subtext of the letter directly contradicts and undermines the efforts" of the Obama administration "to promote Middle East peace" and "sends a message that the signers consider settlements more important than peace."

Meanwhile, before the letter was officially closed, American Jewish Congress president Richard Gordon penned a piece encouraging senators to back the letter, and arguing that settlements are part of a different discussion. Here it is:

I was surprised, and more than a bit disappointed, to read the comments by my colleagues at Americans for Peace Now and J Street opposing the letter being circulated by Senators Evan Bayh and Jim Risch supporting the president’s efforts to encourage Arab states to normalize relations with the State of Israel.

What is important about the letter is what it contains, not what it does not. Every nation has the right to have its existence recognized by its fellow nations. Israel is no different than any other nation in this regard.  This is a critical and necessary first step in any peace discussion.  How can a nation be at peace with nations that do not recognize it even exists? [[READMORE]]

The fact that the Bayh-Risch letter does not discuss the status of the settlements does not detract from its importance.  The status of the settlements is a distinct and different discussion.  It is secondary to the very simple and long overdue notion of Arab nations’ recognizing Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.  There is no reason to couple these discussions.  In fact, by doing so, Americans and members of the Jewish community distract from focusing on the most critical issue, Israel’s right to exist.

The Arab world’s refusal to recognize Israel has nothing to do with settlements.  It dates back to the very founding of the State of Israel itself, more than 60 years ago.  It predates the 1967 war.  In fact, it predates the building of the first settlement.  Except for Jordan and Egypt, whose efforts towards peace Senators Bayh and Risch correctly recognized in their letter, the policy of rejecting Israel’s sovereignty by all of the other Arab nations, continues unbroken to this day.  With or without the settlements, there is no reason to believe it would not continue.  That is why it is so important not to couple these issues.  In order for there to be peace in the Middle East, Arab nations must first acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a nation in that region.

The Bayh-Risch letter is important not only to Jews but to all supporters of the state of Israel because it recognizes Israel’s numerous unilateral steps towards peace and calls on "Arab leaders to take similar tangible steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process".  It then goes on to list numerous ways in which Arab nations can do so. The first and most important of which is to recognize the State of Israel.

Instead of rejecting the Bayh-Risch letter for its failure to discuss the settlement issue-which is important, and needs to be addressed as a part of the peace process-we call on our fellow Jewish organizations and their members to vigorously support the letter as an expression of support for the State of Israel, its unconditional right to exist and be recognized by its neighbors, and for its call for Arab nations to meet Israel halfway on the road to peace.

It is understandable that Palestinians and Arab nations latch on to the settlement issue as an excuse to continue to avoid recognizing Israel. What is unfathomable is why those who claim to love Israel would give them cover in continuing their decades-long refusal to acknowledge Israel’s place in the Middle East.

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