Finding the right balance between solidarity with Israel and opposition to the policies of its government often is a difficult task for Jews in the Diaspora.
Since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, that task has been particularly hard for left-wing Jewish activists. They say they sometimes have been marginalized and silenced in their own Diaspora communities while their counterparts in Israel have lowered their profiles since official peace talks between the sides broke down.
Now, though, with the unofficial peace proposal known as the “Geneva accord” galvanizing left-wing circles in Israel and winning guarded support from members of the Bush administration, some U.S. Jewish activists are feeling renewed confidence.
“Whenever we talk about moving toward peace and making compromises, they’ve always changed the subject to talk about security,” said Marc Rosenblum, founder and political director of Americans for Peace Now. “But it’s clear now that security alone can’t save Israel.”
Rosenblum came to Geneva this week with a group of American Jewish activists because, as he told JTA, “the moment has come to be passionately in favor of peace.”
His camp is now setting the political agenda, he said.
“Today, everyone is drinking from the same cup of peace,” Rosenblum said. “We have Geneva, we have the Ayalon-Nusseibeh proposals” — another unofficial peace proposal heralded by a Palestinian intellectual and a former Israeli secret service chief — “and even the settlers have come up with what they call a peace plan.”
Marcia Freedman, president of the American group Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, said she too believes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government is “now on the defensive,” and that support for its policies in the United States is “beginning to break down.”
Leaders of mainstream Jewish groups deny that left-wing voices have been silenced, arguing that Jewish public opinion simply has shifted rightward since Palestinian terrorism exposed the alleged naivete of the left’s support for the Oslo peace process.
But some left-wing activists insist they have been muzzled.
“With the silence that’s been imposed on the community” since the intifada began, “it has been difficult for those opposed to settlements and the security wall to speak out,” Freedman said.
But that’s changing because the climate in Israel is undergoing radical change, Rosenblum said.
“When you see people like the army chief of staff and the four Shabak heads speaking out” — a reference to a recent interview with former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security service — “you know that there is a realization that only a political solution can solve the crisis” between Israel and the Palestinians, Rosenblum said. “Only an agreement can save Israel.”
Alan Solomont, a board member of the Israel Policy Forum and chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said American Jews have a particularly important role to play in breaking the logjam that has prevented a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We’re going to have to see how initiatives like Geneva reverberate in the States,” Solomont said. “So far, unfortunately, there has been little attention paid to these issues in the Jewish press in the U.S., and that’s because Israel has been dismissive of any peace initiative not taken by its own government.”
While he is “not sure that Geneva is the perfect solution,” Solomont said, it does prove that “there are people on both sides who are serious about wanting peace.”
Solomont also said he is satisfied that the key element of the conflict — the Palestinian demand that millions of refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence be allowed to return to their former homes – – is settled in the Geneva accord. Most Israelis consider the demand for “right of return” a veiled call to destroy the Jewish state through demographic means.
“This agreement provides a time frame for resolving all claims and, most importantly, Israel has an ultimate veto on the numbers of refugees it can decide to take in,” Solomont said.
Rosenblum also said he was satisfied with the accord’s refugee clause, adding that he believed the Palestinians for the first time had renounced the “right of return.”
“I think that maybe the Palestinians have also learned something about what can be acceptable to Israel,” he said.
Opponents say the text of the agreement is rather ambiguous on the issue, however, and Palestinian negotiators insist they have preserved the demand.
Rosenblum said he wasn’t worried that the Bush administration might step back from peace efforts because of the upcoming U.S. presidential election season, as some predict.
“The popular version is to think that Bush will be driven by, ‘Will it play in Peoria?’ ” Rosenblum said. “But in the next 11 months he’s also going to have to think about keeping his eye on Jerusalem.”
Already, he pointed out, the United States is beginning to pressure Israel toward more conciliatory policies.
The administration has criticized the security fence Israel is building to keep out Palestinian terrorists. In addition, the United States recently deducted nearly $300 million from loan guarantees because of Israeli settlement building and because the fence in some places goes beyond Israel’s pre-1967 border with the West Bank.
Senior U.S. officials have praised the Geneva accord and the proposal by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh. In addition, Powell has invited Geneva accord architects Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo for a meeting in Washington on Friday.
“It’s not impossible they’ll meet the National Security Council,” Rosenblum said.
Freedman, too, said he did not think electoral politics would force the Bush administration to tone down its peace efforts.
“I get the feeling that with the mess this administration is in in Iraq, the Republicans would want Bush to gain some international stature by restoring his credibility in the Middle East,” Freedman said. “Backing a peace initiative with the Palestinians could go a long way to doing that.”
Freedman said the Geneva accord is a better option than the “road map” peace plan that the Bush administration sponsored with the United Nations, European Union and Russia.
It also is superior to the Oslo accords, “another road map that leaves things open ended,” she said.
In contrast to Oslo, which left solutions to the most intractable problems to be determined at the end of a long negotiating process, the Geneva accord seeks to define those solutions from the beginning.
Solomont said he would work to give the Geneva accord “the attention it deserves” in the American Jewish community.
Until now, he said, left-wing Jewish activists have been putting out the wrong message.
“We talk a lot about issues of equity, morality and justice,” he said. “But we are primarily motivated by Israel’s security and long-term interest.”
“This is not about redressing” Palestinian grievances “and not just because it’s right, but because at the end of the day this is the only way we can preserve a democratic and secure Israel,” he said.