Half a Kingdom

Each Purim, we celebrate the time when a well-placed Jew got the ear of the king and turned the tide of history.

That’s why I want to talk about Tom Friedman.

Last Sunday, Friedman’s op-ed column in The New York Times recounted a conversation he had with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

Friedman’s suggestion to Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler was this: "In return for a total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967, lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the 22 members of the Arab League would offer Israel full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees. Full withdrawal, in accord with U.N. Resolution 242, for full peace between Israel and the entire Arab world."

We’ll get to the crown prince’s response in a minute — don’t hold your breath — but first let’s look at the reaction among American Jews to that simple proposal.

The column became the topic of numerous dinner table discussions, and will probably be argued over at not a few Megillah readings.

Among the responses I heard: Israel will never agree to that! Why should Israel agree to that? If Israel agreed to that, it would be suicide!

Of course, in suggesting such a plan, Friedman knew one thing many American Jews may have forgotten: The government of Israel has already agreed to everything in his proposal. The government supported U.N. Resolution 242, which then formed the basis for all its peace negotiations with Arab nations. Israel seeks territorial compromise not because it believes the Arabs have a right to land that Israel won fair and square, or because it is overly concerned with Palestinian rights. Successive Israeli leaders have realized their country’s best chance of success lay in peace with its neighbors, and in nurturing a democratic Jewish state.

One person who knows this well is U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and co-chairs the U.S.-Israeli Inter-Parliamentary Commission on National Security.

Harman arrived at our offices late Monday afternoon, holding a copy of the column. "Have you read Friedman?" she asked.

Harman’s district stretches from San Pedro to Venice, where she lives. She had just returned from a tour of the Middle East. There, she looked at ways to increase international anti-terror efforts post-Sept. 11. In Israel, a general told her that had Harman’s Holocaust-refugee parents chosen Israel rather than America, she certainly would have grown up to be an air force general.

The general manqué turned her steely blue eyes back to Friedman’s column. "Something like this would be hard for leaders of the region to turn down," she said. Though Harman was careful to say she’s not the one negotiating, she did say an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could look like what Friedman laid out, with adjustments made for border considerations.

Support for Israel is one of the few things Congress agrees to across partisan lines, Harman said. The disagreement is over how active our government should be in pursuing negotiations. "I’d like to see us play a more aggressive role," she said.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia told Friedman that he had the same sweeping peace proposal in mind, but shelved it because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s measures against Palestinian terror. It was a poor excuse for a poor excuse: Arab leaders have managed to reach out to Israeli prime ministers like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who could be just as hard line.

A long, long time ago, a Jewish heroine impressed a king, and in return he promised her "half a kingdom." When Arab leaders, from Arafat to al-Saud, keep finding excuses for rejecting Israel’s offers — or reasons for rejecting even making Israel an offer — their complaints ring hollow, and they seem for all the world to be saying that for Israel, even half is too much.

But in putting his idea to al-Saud, Friedman got one of the Arab world’s most influential leaders — and us, too — to go a step beyond the gruesome headlines. These days, that’s no joke.

Happy Purim.