Can We Talk?
By Diane Balser, National Advocacy Chair

It’s not easy for those with opposing views to talk. In fact, within the American Jewish community, we’ve learned that it’s sometimes difficult even for brothers and sisters to have a conversation about their opinions on Israel.  Needless to say, if Israel is to know peace and security, to flourish fully into the state dreamed of by its founders, it will have to talk with governments with whom it has substantive disagreements.

This doesn’t mean it’s enough for Israel to consider talking to those "on the other side" with whom it already feels some degree of comfort, such as Mahmoud Abbas—it means Israel should talk to any party that is willing to engage in discussion.

"Mr. Prime Minister... if an Arab leader is sending a peace signal, be it the slightest and most hesitant, you must accept it, you must test immediately its sincerity and seriousness...."

Israeli Author David Grossman, speech at Yitzhak Rabin memorial rally, November 4, 2006
Increasingly, voices from within Israel and without are calling on the Israeli government to do just that. This summer’s Lebanon War and its uncertain outcome revealed the inadequacy of Israel's military to truly solve the country's security problems; the seemingly endless chaos in Gaza reveals more of the same. Hezbollah was not brought to submission through the bloody hostilities, and has not yet returned the Israeli soldiers it holds captive; despite months of blockade and military reprisal, Hamas has not agreed to Israel’s preconditions for negotiations, and it too continues to hold a soldier captive.

And so, there is only one real solution—diplomacy—which often means we address the painfully difficult issues at the table rather than as pre-conditions to starting the conversation. Prime Minister Olmert’s earlier attempts at unilateralism have failed, the very idea dead in the war.

The voices within Israeli government for diplomacy are not strong. The Olmert government has not yet responded to calls by more than 70 of the country’s leading military experts and intellectuals to talk with anyone willing to hold negotiations; it continues to refuse to respond substantively to recent Syrian overtures; and it continues to engage in saber-rattling with Iran. The recent inclusion of the far right—wing Yisrael Beiteinu party to the ruling coalition completes this gloomy picture—Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Leiberman is a well-known advocate of forcible transfer of Arabs out of Israel.

Today people are voting and there could be significant change in Congress. With this possibility there will be a new opportunity for American government to think afresh about US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Moreover, Olmert’s position is bolstered by an American government led by a neo-conservative agenda of isolationism and non-negotiation. Like the Israeli Prime Minister, President Bush refuses to talk with Hamas, Syria or Iran, and the two men have consistently supported each other’s tendencies to place unrealistic pre-conditions on any second party before talks can even be considered.

And yet: Beyond the simple fact that the only real way out of the violence is negotiation, there are occasional signs that shifts may be occurring in both countries. Within Israel, there's an increasingly lively debate regarding the efficacy of the country's military engagement with Hezbollah earlier this year. One week ago today, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, "We could see the Saudi Initiative as the basis for negotiation." Many are further debating the wisdom of talking with Hamas and giving serious consideration to any Syrian offers. In the words of Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit, former head of Israeli military intelligence, "If we truly want dialogue and peace agreements, we must truly and fully accept the formula that we so readily spout—'Israel is prepared to negotiate with any Arab organizations without any preconditions!'"

Without dialogue—between conflicting nations and among ourselves—peace will not be possible.

Interestingly, it would seem that a majority of Israelis have understood this to be true. A poll conducted recently by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found that 61% of Israelis believe that achieving peace with the Palestinians is vital for Israel. A report published by Hebrew University’s Truman Institute in September found that 67% support negotiations with a Palestinian national unity government and more than half (56%) support talking directly with a Hamas-led government, if necessary.

In the US, the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, has begun to make similar suggestions to the Bush Administration. Baker said in a recent television interview, "I believe in talking to your enemies," and referred to the 15 trips he made to the Syrian capital of Damascus, as secretary of state. The man who famously told former Israeli Primer Minister Yitzhak Shamir to call the State Department when he got serious about holding talks with the Palestinians is now edging closer to calling on the US government to stop boycotting the Middle East’s key players.  While there are indications that the report will recommend US diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria, it is less certain that it will address US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, US foreign policy is key to what Israel does; if the US opens up, Israel may as well.Moreover, governments literally the world over are pushing Israel for greater flexibility. While the EU remains committed to the isolation of the Palestinian Hamas-led government, it is also calling on Israel to soften its stance on preconditions for ending the boycott. Forces in the Arab world—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Arab League—are also calling for diplomatic efforts to end the impasse.

In Israel, rabbis and generals alike have called on their government to talk to Hamas, but in the US, much of the Jewish community refuses to even consider the possibility. Yet, Jewish voices are often influential in determining the course of American foreign policy. As American Jews we need to have these discussions within our community, difficult as they may appear.

"Ask yourselves if this is not the time to get a grip, to break free of this paralysis, to finally claim the lives we deserve to live."

Israeli Author David Grossman, closing words from speech at Yitzhak Rabin memorial rally, November 4, 2006

As we call on Israel to talk with anyone willing to hold negotiations, we must also call on our brothers and sisters to broaden the dialogue amongst ourselves. We must bring the simple idea of the indispensability of negotiations to the center of the American Jewish political life. Without dialogue—between conflicting nations and among ourselves—peace will not be possible.

Today people are voting and there could be significant change in Congress. With this possibility there will be a new opportunity for American government to think afresh about US foreign policy in the Middle East.  This is an important time for all of us who care about the future of Israel and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its role in the overall region to start the conversation afresh.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

Donate:Help build on Brit Tzedek's success.

Share this message:Tell others about Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.

Receive regular updates:Click if you received this message from a friend, and would like to get regular updates from Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.

More information:Click to see our website.

This message was sent to . Visit your subscription management page to modify your email communication preferences or update your personal profile. Click here (or reply via email with "remove" in the subject line) to remove yourself from ALL email lists maintained by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.