The Israeli government’s efforts to sell its peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization went into high gear this week, with the arrival of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in New York.
He was here officially to address the United Nations and meet with other foreign ministers.
But he took the opportunity of his visit to rally the Jewish community’s troops at a New York synagogue on Sunday and at a meeting Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
At the Conference of Presidents, Peres made an eloquent case for the agreement on Palestinian self-rule worked out under his supervision in Norway, defending it as both morally and pragmatically necessary for the Jewish state.
Addressing the key concerns of the Jewish community, Peres said Israel would not yield on the three central issues: the status of Jerusalem, the security of the settlements in the administered territories and the refusal to allow Palestinians to exercise their “right of return” to Israel.
“He took the argument to the community, which I think is praiseworthy,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who participated in the meeting.
But Peres chose to confront head-on another source of concern over the self-rule agreement — the religious argument regarding the sanctity of the Land of Israel and the prohibition against giving up any of it.
This confrontation may have decisively alienated American Orthodox leaders already inclined to oppose the accord.
“I see some rabbis, and rabbis are very powerful, opposing most of what we do,” Peres said at one point, before confronting the arguments being made concerning the sanctity of the Land of Israel.
“We need to have a real discussion with the religious people,” he said later. “They don’t have the permission of the Lord to give preference to territory over (Israel’s moral) spirit.”
ORTHODOX LEADERS OFFENDED
In defense of granting Palestinian autonomy to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, Peres said that the religious laws regarding the sanctity of the Land of Israel never applied to Gaza, and that “Jericho was cursed in the Bible, a curse that was never taken off.”
Peres said he would not shy away from arguing the Bible with the rabbis. “They think we don’t know it. We won’t give it up. We were born with the Torah, when we breathe the open air of our land,” he said.
The Orthodox leaders in attendance, who had been taking positions on the Israeli-Palestinian accord ranging from quiet acceptance to loud opposition, were offended.
Rabbi Louis Bernstein, past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, termed these remarks “a fatuous swipe at the Orthodox” that he will not “easily forget.”
Later in the day, Peres called Conference of Presidents Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein to clarify his remarks. Hoenlein said the foreign minister had not meant to offend anyone.
Peres said his comments were “an attempt to portray the importance” of “the moral component to our policies,” according to Hoenlein. “It was not my intent to insult.”
At the Conference of Presidents meeting that morning, Peres reached for a vocabulary as much religious as realpolitik in describing the general principles underlying the accord.
He acknowledged that there are “hundreds” of hurdles on the road to peace, but added that “if you have a galloping horse, don’t be afraid of the hurdles.”
The solution reached in months of secret negotiations in Norway, said Peres, constitutes “an honest answer, not necessarily to the Palestinians, but to our own historic conscience.
“We are facing an issue of two peoples who are fighting for the same land,” he said. “Two renaissances that instead of complementing each other are fighting each other.
CALLS GAZA ‘A MORAL SHAME’
“The fact we were running Gaza was a moral shame. I as a Jewish person couldn’t stand it, to see the poverty, to see the camps,” the foreign minister said.
By the same token, he said, there was no choice but to negotiate with the PLO.
But Peres emphasized the ground rules he laid for the Palestinians, concerning the lines Israel would insist could not be crossed.
“They wanted the right of return. We didn’t agree to any number.
“If you will reduce our majority,” Peres said he told the Palestinians, “it is the end of our state. So you must understand this cannot be negotiated in real terms.
“The second issue we explained clearly to the Palestinians is Jerusalem. We told them we do not have a mandate or a will to Berlinize Jerusalem. It took the world such an effort to unite Berlin, don’t expect us to divide Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem was never an Arab capital, and the Jews have never had a capital other than Jerusalem,” he added.
The third point he stressed concerned the settlements.
“It’s not a secret that not everybody of us was terribly happy with every addition of settlements in West Bank and Gaza Strip. Politically, we will pay heavily for it. But no matter how a child is born, out of luck or an accident, once a child is born, it is the child that matters, not how he was born.”
The fact that there are 140,000 settlers in the territories, said Peres, rules out a repeat of what happened to the Sinai settlement of Yamit, which was torn down as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
“Neither do we want to do it,” said Peres, since some of the settlements are part of Labor’s strategic vision.
Finally, he said, “when it comes to security, no compromises. Jewish people are going to defend their own life. We never ask Americans or Russians to do it for us. That is really the meaning of returning for ourselves, for independence.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.