Don’t Discard Liberal Jewish Groups

Gary Wexler levels the charges that Americans for Peace Now (APN), along with other organizations associated with American Jewish liberals, are obsolete. He writes that
we are ignoring the “real” threats facing Israel such as those emanating from Syria and Iran, that we are out of touch with the mainstream for questioning the efficacy of Israel’s current military actions in Lebanon and Gaza, that we are wrong to believe a peace partner exists on the other side and that our “knee-jerk” reactions and inability to recognize and react to the redefining of American Jewish support for Israel will prove to be our ultimate downfall.

While Wexler may be ready to discard Peace Now and APN at this difficult juncture, that choice is not so for a great many others, as indicated by the 250 people who attended the program on July 24 in Los Angeles to discuss the current situation (causing a venue change from a private home to a large auditorium).
Based on his comments, it seems that Wexler has lost sight of the vision and values of Peace Now — which itself arose from the security establishment — and Americans for Peace Now (APN).

Both are Jewish, Zionist organizations that recognize that real security for Israel is a function of not only a strong military, but also a commitment to achieving peace with her neighbors. Neither are pacifist organizations, impatient to criticize any and every military action undertaken by the state of Israel.

On the contrary, Peace Now and APN, like all supporters of Israel, recognize Israel’s right and responsibility to defend itself against terrorism and regional existential threats. We support the maintenance of a strong IDF with real deterrent capability. At the same time, we believe that we have the right and the obligation to raise questions and even protest when we believe Israeli actions are destructive to Israel’s own security interests.

The second intifada put a violent exclamation point on the ultimate failure of the Oslo peace process to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It forced much soul-searching within the Israeli peace camp and its supporters in the United States.

However, through it all, a broad consensus within Israel, and supported by the American Jewish community, emerged around some basic points: Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is vital to Israel’s security and national interests, and to do so requires a “two-state solution;” and, ultimately, it is in Israel’s best interests to forge peace agreements with all of her neighbors, in addition to Egypt and Jordan.

In essence, the once revolutionary Peace Now agenda — supporting negotiations with the Palestinians, arguing that Israel’s security and long-term viability as a Jewish, democratic state are a function of both a strong military and of determined efforts to achieve peace, supporting the relinquishing of some territory and accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state — has now become largely mainstream.

A given Israeli on the street in Tel Aviv or American Jew in a synagogue in Los Angeles may not self-identify as a supporter of Peace Now, but odds are that if one were to probe his views, they would find that this is in fact more or less what he believes. This is not a coincidence or chance occurrence, and illustrates the fact that as Wexler said, the liberal/left label regarding Israeli politics does not have the same meaning as it might have in the past.

The current Israeli drive for “realignment” and “separation” is organically linked to the idea of a two-state solution, which requires a physical separation between the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Last year’s painful “disengagement” from Gaza and part of the West Bank — involving the long-overdue evacuation of settlements — was widely supported by Israelis, who recognize that settlements are an obstacle to achieving this goal of separation.

Once again, a core Peace Now position long viewed as revolutionary has quietly entered the mainstream in Israel and among American Jews. Over time, we expect that mainstream Israel and American Jews will also catch up with us regarding two related issues: unilateralism, which we view as an insufficient policy for achieving long-term security since it leaves Israel without a negotiated agreement and accompanying security guarantees and undermines potential moderate Palestinian partners for such agreements; and continued expansion of settlements, which is antithetical to achieving real separation and the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

In facing the most serious existential threats to Israel, Peace Now and APN believe that Israel is best able to face these threats — most notably Iran — when it is not forced to divert precious military resources to resolvable and avoidable conflict, and when its actions in these conflicts are not unnecessarily galvanizing widespread hatred and resentment of Israel.

Serious, productive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would do more than any IDF intervention to promote stability — as was clearly evident during the heyday of the Oslo process in the mid-1990s. Similarly, progress on the Israel-Palestinian track would go a long way to promoting better relations with states throughout the region and would deny extremists a potent rallying point.

As to the question of whether there are partners for peace, APN and Peace Now believe that Israel does not have the luxury of waiting for the perfect partners to appear and in the meantime refusing to talk to anyone else. As Moshe Dayan famously stated, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” History has shown that partners emerge when conditions are ripe and the interests of each side coincide enough that partnerships which seemed improbable at best a short while before are forged, as happened in 1978 between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

What will become of the current status of relations or lack thereof between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership depends upon a great many factors, but to rule out negotiations is to give up on a political process and leave only use of force.

And this brings us to the current day and the discussion of Israel’s military campaigns against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

As the moderator of the July 2 event, reading Wexler’s recollection of the evening makes me feel as if we were not in the same room. All the speakers at the forum affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself and pursue those that plan and participate in doing it harm.

All agreed that the by crossing into sovereign Israeli territory and killing and capturing Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah and Hamas committed gross provocations to which Israel had every right to respond. However, there were legitimate differences of opinion over whether Israel’s military response has been appropriate, with particular concern that the response has reached the point of diminishing returns. This was a Zionist, pro-Israel discussion, undertaken by individuals who are deeply committed to Israel’s existence and security.

For decades, the Zionist peace camp in Israel and the United States has bravely taken the lead in asking the hard questions and shouldering the burden of positions based on what we know is true, rather than what is easy or popular. We weathered criticism in the past for our convictions, and no doubt we will weather the criticism now. We do so for the sake of Israel.