The Common Good

Enough Jawboning: A Bold but Hopeful Proposal for Middle East Peace

100412_090530-4022-palestineThere is a biblical story in which Samson used the jawbone of an ass to defeat his enemies. Today some politicians seem to think "jawboning" -- talk and more talk, whether sweet or angry -- can actually win peace in the Middle East. But it will take much stronger action.

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During the past month, the Israeli government's evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and its building new neighborhoods of Jews in the same area has become a front-page international issue.

The result has been what look like tough statements from key American officials denouncing the new settlements, and a cold shoulder from President Obama to Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visited the U.S.

Yet Mr. Netanyahu received a standing ovation from attendants at the AIPAC convention, when he asserted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement." Even the head of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, carried water on contradictory shoulders by asserting that Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty while at the same time claiming to hope for a two-state peace settlement.

These responses may have convinced Mr. Netanyahu that the American Jewish community remained unswervingly supportive of whatever he proclaims is Israeli policy. His colleagues have dismissed not only such growing independent Jewish voices as J Street but even key aides to President Obama like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod as "self-hating Jews."

So on returning to Israel, Mr. Netanyahu had no compunctions about having the Israeli Cabinet reaffirm plans to keep settling Jews in areas long understood as Palestinian neighborhoods.

So it is clear that jawboning the Israeli government will not change its policies.

And more and more often, serious American political leaders are saying that settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vital national interest of the United States. General David Petraeus warned both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Congress that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Central Command's Area of Responsibility] ... Meanwhile, al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support." Therefore, "Progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for Centcom."

So what can the U.S. government do, besides jawboning, that would be politically viable in the U.S., change the political balance inside Israel to make possible a decent peace settlement with a viable independent Palestine, and bring the Arab states and a united Palestinian leadership into readiness for peace with Israel?

The U.S. provides military aid to Israel of at least three billion dollars a year. Imagine that the U.S. announces that it will put half the military aid to Israel in escrow, to be paid on the following conditions:

The money will be made available to pay the costs of resettling -- providing decent new homes and neighborhoods -- to the Israelis who are now living in Palestinian land beyond the 1967 borders (except those who are already living in the Old City of Jerusalem and those who choose to live under Palestinian law and sovereignty).

Simultaneously, the U.S. should offer major economic aid to a nascent Palestine on condition that leaders from at least some of Hamas and Fatah join in a government of national unity, take vigorous steps to prevent attacks on Israel, and agree to take part in a regional peace conference with the goal of achieving peace among Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states within approximately the 1967 boundaries. (At least some Hamas leaders have asserted they are willing to support a two-state solution if a Palestinian plebiscite were to affirm it.)

And the U.S. should call for a regional peace conference that brings together all Arab states, Israel, and the national unity government of a nascent Palestinian state, to achieve peace and security for all in the Middle East and greater safety for America. (This proposal has actually been made and repeated by the Arab League beginning in 2002. The Israeli government has ignored it ever since, with tacit approval from the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration has hinted at supporting it, but taken no vigorous steps to make it happen.)

Will the Israelis be so outraged by this U.S. effort that they will stiffen in support of Netanyahu? Until now they have let him do what he wants. But if they are offered the carrot of money to resettle the settlers, plus the carrot of a peace treaty from all the Arab states and the new Palestine, plus the carrot of continued U.S. friendship, plus the "stick"of military aid suspended, there is a greater likelihood they will want to join the effort to make peace.

Why put half the military aid in escrow, rather than all of it? Because the fear-ridden Israeli public might support its arrogant government in a reckless military adventure if they were feeling "abandoned" and thought they must act "with nothing to lose" and "before it would be too late." So the shock of halving military aid might bring the Israeli government and people to its senses, while reassuring them they had not been abandoned.

Would this kind of bold action by the U.S. government win support at home?

Although some "Christian Zionists" have worked out a theology that utterly excludes Palestinians from a legitimate right to self-government on the land where they live, granting all rights to the land to the Jewish people, most American Christians do support a two-state solution.

Although some American Muslims would prefer a "one-state solution" as a better space for the return of Palestinian refugees and the achievement of a state with a Palestinian majority, most recognize that an unending war to dismantle Israel is a far bloodier disaster than anything we have seen so far.

And although much of the official institutional leadership of the American Jewish community might well resist any practical steps to achieve the two-state peace they say they want, most of the real flesh-and-blood American Jews would be likely to ignore them if a bold American leadership took those steps, while clearly protecting Israel. (A poll of American Jews in mid-March, conducted by Gerstein / Agne Strategic Communications, showed that by a 71-29 percent margin, American Jews support the United States "exerting pressure" on both the Israelis and the Arabs to make the necessary compromises to achieve peace.)

Why act now? Because if Netanyahu gets his way, he will make it impossible for there to be a two-state peace -- and he is very close.

Can enough American Jews, enough American Christians, and enough American Muslims -- not all, but enough -- build Abrahamic Alliances -- both national and grass-roots -- to support this call for "bold action" by the U.S. government?

The outcome is not solely in Netanyahu's hands, nor in Obama's. It is in our own.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, co-author of The Tent of Abraham, and author of Godwrestling--Round 2, Down-to-earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on U.S. public policy. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. Click here to receive the weekly online Shalom Report.

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