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Israel at 68 – Today’s test of leadership

I’m reminded every Independence Day of how blessed we Jews are, how privileged we are to be able to do what my grandparents never did – to walk on the soil of the Land of Israel, to build a nation there and be rebuilt through her, to plant and harvest there, to build great cities, communities, universities, and hospitals, to gather in the exiles from the four corners of the earth, and to offer safety and an enriched Jewish life to children who then speak the ancient tongue and carry on what Israel’s pioneers began more than a century ago.

For the Jewish people, the state of Israel is a miracle of our history, and a continuing source of gratitude, fulfillment and joy. The Zionist movement and the Jewish state have restored the Jewish people not only to our homeland but to sovereignty after 2000 years of exile. Israel has returned our people to history.

It has not come easily. We Jews are schooled in both the idealism of the Biblical prophets and the realism of Israel’s pioneers and leaders. With sovereignty has come difficult ethical challenges. We’ve had to weigh competing moral claims and make sacrifices that 2000 years of exile never demanded; how to remain moral despite the compromises that come with sovereignty.

I live and breathe Israel. My family helped to found Petach Tikvah, one of Israel’s first settlements in 1880. My second cousin is now the President of the State. I am always worried about Israel’s security and the safety of our people there, and for many years I’ve also worried about the negative impact that the exercise of power, including the occupation of 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, has had on the state’s Jewish and moral character.

Saying this, I know that Palestinian rejectionism is the primary reason that there’s no peace between Israelis and Palestinians today. I know too that there can be no dignity for Israelis if there’s no dignity for the Palestinians. It should be clear that how this conflict is resolved matters, that our fate as a people is dependent upon the fate of the Palestinian people.

In an op-ed in Haaretz this week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie challenged Israel’s Prime Minister to do what he has so far failed to do, become the leader that Israel so desperately needs:

“Great leaders shape their reputations by making tough calls on big issues. Prime Minister Begin withdrew from Sinai, Rabin committed to Oslo, and Sharon pulled out of Gaza. Right or wrong, they were risk-takers and big-picture leaders. But Netanyahu, a shrewd and calculating politician, likes to put off dealing with the big questions. What is his position on preventing a bi-national state, or on dealing with Hamas, or on stopping the third intifada? We don’t know because he refuses to tell us. Netanyahu is not only cautious but careful to the point of paralysis, usually a hostage to his rightwing base.

But the problem is that his strategy is backfiring. It is true that Israel should not be blamed for the current diplomatic impasse, and Hamas thirsts for Israel’s blood. But absent an Israeli initiative, it is too easy to believe that Israel does not really want peace. Anyone who has spent even a week on an American college campus knows that the problem is not only the Israel-haters in BDS but the anguished questions of Israel-lovers who want to know why Netanyahu continues to build settlements if he really wants a Jewish and democratic Israel. Why, young Jews ask, does the prime minister not put a peace plan on the table? Why does he not tell us what he envisions as Israel’s borders? Why does he not talk of the need to separate from the Palestinians, negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, and, when security can be assured, create two states for two peoples? How can it be in that in Netanyahu’s fourth term as Prime Minister we do not know where he is going or what exactly he wants?”

These are tough questions and serious demands. It is time that the Prime Minister explain himself. If he does, that could be the greatest gift he gives to the Jewish people on this 68th anniversary of Israel's independence.

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