Israel's Road to Peace:
The Role of American Jews

Plenary Address by Stephen P. Cohen
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's 2nd National Conference
October 31, 2003

Good evening on the first Shabbat of Ramadan. Halloween is a time of costumes and deception. Ramadan is supposed to be a time of breaking down deception and encountering truth. Shabbat is the thing we've had the least of in the last 3 years, a time of rest from destruction. And we need a real Shabbat. And I'm going to start from the end because of what Naomi did, which is to clarify the importance and uniqueness of the Geneva documents. And to tell you from the beginning that Geneva has yet to reach Washington. And to tell you also that the best hope we can have of the way Geneva reaches Washington is not that the roadmap will lead to the Geneva, but that Geneva will lead to the revival in Washington of the roadmap.

Let my try to explain to you how our government in Washington, and our representatives in the congress and senate deal with the issues of Israel and the Palestinians. There are two levels at which we need to understand this phenomenon. The first is strategic. That's where people like to stay, because it's sophisticated, semi-rational and one can talk about it in normal language. At the strategic level, the key thing is to understand that Washington is obsessed with the American occupation of Iraq. And the American occupation of Iraq is coming up to an election season. The context of those two, the complexity of America's occupation of Iraq, and the failure yet to put it in the best possible way for them of the hubris of the Bush-Cheney idea that overthrowing Saddam would be the key to bringing about positive transformation throughout the Middle East in democracy and peace and economic development. The fact that that hubris is still far from reality and instead, there is no sign of the ability of the United States to develop a legitimate regime in Iraq, of Iraqis, which can rule, which can have an Iraqi consensus behind it, which can produce a united country, which can produce a governable country. That problem dominates the foreign policy and security thinking of the administration and of those who follow the administration in either criticism or support.

The problem of Iraq, however, is not the only dimension we need to understand about the way our government deals with these issues. And it is the other element that I believe underlies how we got into Iraq, and why it is that Geneva has yet to arrive in Washington, though it has arrived in every other capital in the world. That has to do with the fact that intellectual and political thought about the Middle East in Washington is paralyzed. Our elected representatives are deeply uncomfortable in discussing these issues because they feel these issues are inevitable losers for them, no matter what they say or do. If they understand already that these issues are creating great human trouble and pain and anguish for the people involved and if they understand already that this is a sinkhole for American credibility in the world, and for the attitudes in the Arab and Muslim world toward the United States, they don't want to think about it. Because if they express anything about it, they believe it will cost them too much in term of their political future. In terms how they will be treated in the American media. In terms of how they will be treated at election time. And therefore the preferred way to deal with these issues it to not know much about them and to buy, quickly, not only their lack of information, but disinformation that is supplied to them by those who do not want them to know anything real about the Middle East, and particularly anything real about what is happening to Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israel and Palestine.

We have a very serious problem in our country and in its leadership, which is that we have convinced them with out very effective approach about lobbying and convincing people in this country about how to look at the Arab-Israeli issue. We have convinced people that it is not a fit subject for rational discussion, for inquiry and for understanding. This week, as it happens, I decided while I was in Washington to attend a senatorial of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Not only Israeli-Palestinian issue. Such hearings are hard to tolerate because of the kinds of preparations about who is invited to testify and what goes for knowledge and information on such hearings. But this was a hearing on Iran. And the people who were invited to the meeting to testify were serious experts in the United States, who have been engaged either in off the record serious discussions with Iranians, or who have studies the issue what great care. And these people, together with the leading senators, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Luger, and the minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Biden, were both determined to bring out of this testimony a direction for the United States that was not confrontation with Iran. And it was a very interesting hearing, and a valuable hearing. One of the senators tried to raise the Israeli and Palestinian issue and the way it complicates the way it complicated what America is doing in the region. Senator Chaffee, in an unusual act of courage, said that these problems cannot be solved if we did not make a major effort on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But other senators quickly hooted him down and said nothing can be done because of terrorism. The discussion went on and became more and more serious about the possibility of nuclear proliferation in Iran and what could be done about it. One point of view that was express and given a lot of support by some of the experts there-and even some of the senators-was the importance of the United States engaging in real discussion with Iran, in breaking the boycott that the United States has of serious discussion with Iran. There had been at some point some serious discussions between the United States and Iran, but the United States broke off those discussions because it was unhappy with what Iran was doing, as the United States understood it, in relationship to Iraq. And these people were saying that we cannot be in situation where we're making decisions of life and death about the future of our country and theirs. And we are not talking to them and we're not knowing what's going on inside their minds and inside their intentions. They were trying very hard to find a path that did not lead to confrontation. And then one of the senators just asked the question: what if somebody else, not the United States, attacks Iran militarily? What a disaster it would be. And then there was silence. No one was willing to discuss it. No one disagreed, but no one was willing to discuss it.

What we have again and again is a situation where the United States, in these last few years since September 11th, is more deeply involved in the Middle East than it has been at any time in its history-history of the United States and history of the Middle East. The Muslim and Arab world are angrier at the United States than they've ever been, as we know even from polling done by the Pew Research Center, but also known by anybody know by anybody who serves in these countries for the United States in any embassy, and anyone who travels to these countries. And so at the very time that we're entering these countries and engaged in a political struggle about their minds and hearts, they are more alienated from us then ever. And we are in less contact with them than ever. We don't have a serious engagement intellectually and politically, a discussion, an understanding at the highest levels and throughout or society, at a time when we are engaged in a major war, where we occupy two countries-Afghanistan and Iraq, and where we are in a declared war on terror against group that have immerged out of the detritus of politics in that area.

It's very interesting that only one member of the administration has begun to speak about the agreements reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Paul Wolfowitz Assistant Secretary of Defense, has started to talk, but not about the Geneva Accords, precisely about the Nussibeh-Ayalon Agreement. The United States so far has been silent about the Geneva Agreements and even now there is a struggle in which some of our intelligent specialists in the region are trying to get our government to pay attention, to say something encouraging about what has happened. And others are so far successfully preventing that.

We must-and here is where Brit Tzedek is going to have, I believe, its major challenge-break through this major glass ceiling of silence about discussion of Arab-Israeli and Middle East issues in the United States. In all aspects of our society: in the political realm and in civil society. If we have encouragement tonight, if we feel some sense of excitement, it's because Israeli civil society does not live with these constraints and restraints of not being able to talk seriously about the disasters we face. We must not allow that silence to remain within the United States. We must insist on open discussion and intelligent debate. Only then is it possible that the United States will begin to play its proper role in trying to resolve these issues. If we ask ourselves, why was it that the roadmap could not go anywhere. Surely it is easy for us to blame the leadership of Israel and the Palestinians. But that is not enough. We have to recognize that the whole effort that the quartet represented to get an international consensus pushing forward to a resolution of this problem was made impossible by the persistent disagreements between the United States and Europe about the most basic aspects of the roadmap, which was the extent to which performance by Israel had to be parallel to performance by the Palestinians. The extent to which Israeli settlement activity had to be slowed down and stopped parallel to the demand that the Palestinians stop their terrorism.

Unless we can get a certain level of understanding at the international level about the proper demands to be made on everyone, and how to relate to these attempts by Israeli and Palestinian civil society to show that there is a will for agreement, a desire to break out of this stalemate and river of blood. Unless there is some agreement at the international level, unless the United States can start discussing these issues in a way that is convincing to anybody else but itself, we are going to be in a situation where the United States is going to play a major role in keeping the Geneva Accords on the shelf as a good effort that was never implemented. Our responsibility in this regard is very heavy. The Israeli civil society and peace movement is coming to life to try to give support and strength to these achievements. But if our country, our people, our government, our senators and congressmen, or president-insist that for the next fifteen months we are going to hang the sign of out to election and there is going to be no American participation in trying to encourage official movement and negotiation, we are going to be the society that buries the Geneva achievement. And it is clear-as it was to Marcia-that the rest of this society in America does not want to import the Arab-Israeli conflict into the United States. And it does not want to make of this issue a fight of Jew against non-Jew. And so our most important institutions: government, civil society, churches, media will not move forward on these things if there is not a substantial Jewish voice encouraging and joining in moving that forward. We must understand that either we move this forward or we are the cause of paralysis.

Let us take the fact that we are come together on Shabbat, on Halloween and on Ramadan to do some deep reflection and to come out with deep commitment to tear away the veil of silence and ignorance on these issues. To bring a serious debate to all of our society about these issues. And to be sure that the United States and the American people assume their proper role as a leader of peace, not an obstacle to peace. Shabbat Shalom.
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