This Moment in History
By Diane Balser, Executive Director

Since its inception, Brit Tzedek has organized among Jewish Americans in preparation for this moment in history. For six years, we have been building and strengthening a powerful grassroots network, advocating for new foreign policy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We have brought activists together with many of the country's leading rabbis, and played a crucial role in opening up American Jewish opinion regarding a two-state solution to the conflict. We created space in the political arena for these opinions to be expressed on the national stage, and elected officials began -- at first subtly and then with a louder voice -- to break from the status quo and call for real leadership toward peace. We laid the groundwork for a President who would choose to make the issue a priority.

Now, with President Obama in the White House, there is a sea-change taking place in American Middle East policy, and it is happening at lightening speed. The days of neo-conservative and hawkish foreign policy around Israel are over. It is important that we stop and take a moment to notice how far we have come.

Starting with the very first phone call the President made from the Oval Office to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, through the naming of former Senator George Mitchell as special U.S. envoy to the region, and including Secretary of State Clinton's trip to the area this week, the Obama Administration has demonstrated an aggressive approach to diplomacy. See Pro-Peace Activity Timeline: The Obama Administration and Members of the 111th Session of Congress.

This change was on impressive display in a recent Jewish leaders' conference call I participated in with Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell -- itself a major change from the Bush Administration, during which pro-peace voices were not even at the table. A range of opinions were expressed in questions to Mitchell after he spoke. When several Jewish leaders called on Mitchell to suspend peace diplomacy pending Palestinian economic redevelopment, and to delay his next trip until a new Israeli government was formed, his response was a polite and emphatic "no." The days of one voice speaking for all in the Jewish community are over.

Furthermore, Mitchell clearly recognizes the complexity of the issues with which he will be contending: Palestinian unity, Jerusalem, settlements, boundaries, etc. When I asked him about U.S. policy on settlements, Mitchell responded that it is one among many issues that needs to be looked into -- after all, we are only at the very beginning stages of this Administration's peace efforts.

The job of Brit Tzedek now is to support the Administration and Congress when it takes pro-peace steps, while also maintaining our own point of view about what still needs to be done. As things unfold, there will come a time to evaluate the Administration’s steps and press for additional, or different, action – and that advocacy will present its own, sizeable challenge. But right now our duty is to support President Obama’s efforts with large numbers and strong voices from within the Jewish community, by being actively involved in organized outreach to sustain these efforts.

Brit Tzedek has been working to support these efforts with Congressional meetings – on Capitol Hill and in our representatives’ home districts – phone calls from Brit Tzedek’s base and leadership, letter-writing campaigns, regular community-based educational events nationwide, and more. See Highlights of Recent Brit Tzedek Activity

During the past Presidential election, the people of this country rediscovered grassroots organizing. In the coming months, Brit Tzedek’s experience in this area will be needed more than ever.

We are committed to AGGRESSIVE grassroots organizing initiatives, now more than ever before, because in this way we will multiply and leverage our efforts. Please join a chapter, become a Brit Tzedek organizer, send out your letters and forward action alerts to friends. We need to systematically demonstrate to Congress and the Administration that the American Jewish community wants and expects movement and resolution of the conflict.

In truth, Israelis and Palestinians are in trouble. The recent war in Gaza was devastating. The internal political divisions on both sides have been more than detrimental to the peace process. Israel needs strong U.S. leadership to move out of the morass -- we need to be the force in this country that makes clear to the President that there are many, many Jews who will support him and back his administration in its peace initiatives. We must let our President know: "We are with you."



PRO-PEACE ACTIVITY TIMELINE: The Obama Administration and Members of the 111th Session of Congress  (Jan. 3 –March 5, 2009)

January 8:  The Senate and House pass resolutions in support of Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza. While the resolutions as a whole were problematic, both included references to the need for an immediate ceasefire, acknowledgment of the suffering on both sides, and a demand for U.S. leadership in reinvigorating the peace process.  In addition, a number of Representatives and Senators issued their own strongly worded pro-peace statements about the war.

January 21: Barack Obama made his first official phone calls in office, to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The President used the opportunity to pledge "his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term," to help consolidate the Hamas-Israeli cease-fire, and to help the PA with a major reconstruction effort in Gaza.

January 22: President Obama named former Sen. George Mitchell his special U.S. envoy to the Middle East. Sen. Mitchell is a man with significant international stature, a former Senate majority leader, mediator of the successful 1998 peace talks in Northern Ireland, and author of an influential report on the causes and impact of the second intifada. Mitchell has the trust and respect of both Israelis and Palestinians, and -- significantly -- the full attention of his President. "Sen. Mitchell is fully empowered by me and Secretary Clinton," Obama said, "When he speaks, he speaks for us."

January 23:  In a phone call with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Obama "underscored the importance of a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship," praised the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative (calling for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in its entirety, in exchange for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution), and requested Saudi Arabia's assistance in stopping weapons smuggling into Gaza, among other topics.

January 26: President Obama granted his first interview from the White House to al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based news channel. In the interview, Obama emphasized that "the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away," adding "I do believe that the moment is ripe ...to return to the negotiating table." The President later went on to say that he thinks it's possible to achieve a Palestinian state "that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people ... so that people have a better life."

January 27:  George Mitchell arrived in Cairo, Egypt to start an eight-day trip that also included stops in Israel, the West Bank Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. The President said that Mitchell was sent to "solidify the cease-fire, ensure Israel's security, ensure that Palestinians in Gaza are able to get the necessities they need and that they can see a long-term pathway to getting the development they need," but also told al-Arabiya: "I told [Mitchell to] start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating." 

January 28: 

  • George Mitchell met with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, and then proceeded to Israel where his schedule included meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. On Thursday, Mitchell met with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and Mossad chief Meir Dagan before proceeding to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

  • U.S. Representative John Olver (D-MA) delivered a "Dear Colleague" letter to Secretary of State Clinton, ultimately signed by 64 Congress members, saying "As strong supporters of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, we are writing to express our deep concern for the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and to request immediate action by the United States to address this crisis.... We therefore respectfully request that the State Department release emergency funds to UNRWA for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance."

January 30: Two days after Secretary Clinton received Rep. Olver's letter, the President authorized the use of $20.3 million from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) Fund "to address critical post-conflict humanitarian needs in Gaza."

February 4: U.S. Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 130, expressing support for the appointment of Sen. Mitchell as envoy to the region, saying further that the House of Representatives "commits to supporting President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell in their vigorous pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts based on the establishment of 2 states, the State of Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, and with recognized borders; [and] reaffirms that peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab world are essential national security interests of the United States." To date the resolution has 76 co-sponsors, and has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

February 12:  Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), speaking as chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, made it absolutely clear that Israel shares responsibility for the impasse in the conflict and must take bold political steps: "Palestinians have restored law and order in Jenin and Nablus, and are finally starting to put some authority back into the Palestinian Authority... What can be made of the new and growing security dynamic in the West Bank," will depend a lot "on whether Israel--in a break from years of habit -- can recognize its own self-interest in the success of this Palestinian enterprise." Most importantly, he put the settlements and the behavior of the most radical settlers at the very heart of the matter: "We're spiraling downward," he said, adding "the downward pressure comes from terrorism and the march of settlements and outposts; from the firing of rockets and the perpetration of settler pogroms...."

February 17: Newly-named Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand said to reporters that in discussing the future of the Mideast with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, "I will certainly offer what I think is the best policy, regardless of what Netanyahu says is what he wants to do. I will always be an advocate for the solutions that I think will be most effective." She continued: "I think the President will use all the means and all the tools in his toolbox to reach a solution for peace in the Middle East... if he offers positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, that will be a strategic decision for the administration and our secretary of state." Her comments were particularly notable, given that in the past, New York Senators have traditionally supported Israeli government policy fully.

February 19: Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrives in the region, visiting Sderot, the Israeli city most hit by Hamas rockets, and the Gaza Strip, in order to assess the damage done in the war; while there, he spoke with Palestinians about what they most need in the wake of hostilities. During his visit, he was given a letter for President Barack Obama that was believed to be from Hamas. Also in Gaza on the same day, though traveling separately, were two House Representatives: Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Sen. Kerry's trip also included visits to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where he met with President Bashar Assad.

February 20: Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) delivered a letter to Secretary Clinton on the eve of her Mideast trip, signed by 31 Senators -- nearly a third of the Senate. In the letter, the Senators commended both Secretary Clinton and President Obama for their statements regarding the urgency and importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and urged her "to use your upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank to underscore your personal commitment, and that of President Obama, to Israel's security and to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Both are vital U.S. national security interests that must not be neglected."

February 23: George Mitchell began a ten-day trip in the Middle East and Europe, to meet with senior officials and discuss the peace process "as part of our ongoing efforts to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and its other Arab neighbors." Sen. Mitchell joined Secretary Clinton in Egypt for the March 2 Donors Conference for Gaza Recovery.

March 2: Secretary of State Clinton landed in Egypt, where she attended the Donors Conference for Gaza Recovery. She brought with her a pledge of $300 million in aid to rebuild Gaza, and promised an additional $600 million to the Palestinian Authority. On Monday, before flying to Jerusalem, Secretary Clinton told the press: "The U.S. is prepared to engage in aggressive diplomacy with all sides in pursuit of a comprehensive settlement that brings peace and security to Israel and its Arab neighbors."

March 3: In Israel, Clinton met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Secretary Clinton stressed the importance of Israel allowing more humanitarian aid to get to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and of broadening the list of items that it considers "humanitarian aid" which critics say is constricting deliveries of necessary goods. She also emphasized that Israel must meet its commitments to the Bush Administration's Road Map to Peace, which primarily involves the freezing of settlement construction. Clinton stated that there could be no economic take-off in Palestine without a political settlement, contradicting Netanyahu's idea that economic peace could lay the groundwork for a political settlement some time in the future. She further announced that the U.S. would be sending two envoys to Syria, emphasizing the need to create a regional alliance to counter a possible Iranian threat.

March 4:

  • Clinton visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.  She promised vigorous personal involvement in reviving Mideast peace efforts and criticized Israel's 143 orders for demolitions of homes in East Jerusalem since last week, where dozens of such orders has recently been issued, as unhelpful. Meanwhile, Israel announced that it will increase the range of goods permitted into the Gaza Strip as a gesture to Secretary Clinton.

  • Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, gave a report on his recent trip to the Middle East at the Brookings Institution on the challenges and opportunities facing the Obama administration in the region. "The rise of Iran," he said, "has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel." At the same time, Kerry said U.S. opposition to new Israeli settlement activity has "usually existed on paper alone" and went on to say that while "we will defend Israel's security unflinchingly" that "the settlements are fragmenting a future Palestinian state and complicating the work of Israel's defense forces."  He further stated that, "Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating -- with actions rather than words -- that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank."

March 5:  Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) conducted a briefing on Capitol Hill regarding their recent trip to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.



HIGHLIGHTS OF RECENT BRIT TZEDEK ACTIVITY (December 2008 - Present)

December 2008 - January 2009: 

  • Brit Tzedek Executive Director Diane Balser attended a meeting for leaders of Jewish organizations in Washington, DC with President-elect Obama's transition team. She presented our Rabbinic Letter to the President-elect, with more than 1000 signers, to Daniel Shapiro, then-Policy Advisor and Jewish Outreach Coordinator for the Obama campaign, now head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council. Brit Tzedek later released a popular video about the letter, featuring prominent movement rabbis, a Chicago rabbi who is also Michelle Obama's cousin, and the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, friend and neighbor of the Obama's in Hyde Park.

  • Brit Tzedek chapters took advantage of the Congressional recess, holding nearly 50 meetings with Representatives, Senators and their staffs at their home district offices. The relationships established in these meetings proved pivotal in follow-up work in the following weeks, and continue to yield important results.

  • Brit Tzedek chapters held more than 30 events across the country, many attracting hundreds of participants eager to engage in much needed dialogue about the Gaza War.

  • Brit Tzedek Executive Director, Diane Balser engaged in a talk radio discussion on the Gaza conflict with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) who had been publicly supportive of Israel's war efforts.

  • After Brit Tzedek learned that AIPAC was planning to initiate a Congressional resolution supportive of the Gaza War during the opening week of the 111th Congressional session, we collaborated with J Street to make more than 4000 calls, asking that any resolution include a demand for an immediate ceasefire, acknowledgment of the suffering on both sides, and a demand for U.S. leadership in reinvigorating the peace process. While the resolutions were problematic, all three points were alluded to in both the House and Senate versions. In a break from the status quo, Congressional staffers initiated and wrote the resolutions, seeking input from AIPAC as well as the pro-Israel, pro-peace community. In addition, a number of members of Congress wrote their own pro-peace statements on the war.

  • Brit Tzedek held four Town Hall Conference Calls for our supporters on the Gaza War-related issues.  Nearly 1000 people participated in the live calls with Rabbi Marc Gopin (Director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University), Daniel Levy (Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation), Mitchell Plitnick (Director of the American Office of B'Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and Nathan Brown (director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at The George Washington University). Podcasts can be found at: http://btvshalom.org/btvshalom.org/resources/transcripts.shtml

February:

  • Brit Tzedek board, staff, and Rabbinic Cabinet members held more than a dozen meetings with Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill. Brit Tzedek leadership also met with Daniel Shapiro, currently head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.

  • When Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) introduced House Resolution 130, expressing support for the appointment of Sen. Mitchell as envoy to the region, Brit Tzedek organized phone calls in cooperation with J Street expressing support for the resolution nationally and through chapters in key districts. To date the resolution has 76 co-sponsors.

  • When Rep. John Olver (D-MA) introduced a "Dear Colleague" letter to Secretary of State Clinton, calling on the State Department to release emergency funds for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in the Gaza Strip, Brit Tzedek organized a phone-call campaign in support of the effort through our chapter leadership. The letter was ultimately signed by 64 members of the House of Representatives.

  • Jewish pro-Israel Rep. Gary Ackerman, (D-NY) made a powerful statement calling on Israel to take responsibility for its part in the breakdown of the peace process and halt settlement expansion. Brit Tzedek's New York City chapter organized thank you calls from constituents and a nation-wide letter writing campaign thanking Ackerman for taking such a strong stand while maintaining his strong commitment to Israeli security in his capacity as chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

  • Newly-appointed New York Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand broke with the historical policy of New York's Senators to back the Israeli government at all costs, when she said that she plans to suggest to the Israeli government "what I think is the best policy, regardless of what Netanyahu says is what he wants to do." Brit Tzedek's New York chapters organized phone calls and thank you notes to her office.

  • When Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to Gaza to view first-hand the impact of the recent war -- the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to the territory since Hamas seized control nearly two years ago -- Brit Tzedek's Massachusetts chapter leaders wrote to thank him for his leadership in witnessing the situation and spending time with Gaza residents, asking them what they needed in order to rebuild. They also requested that he do a briefing on his trip in Washington, DC and/or their home district.  He did his first briefing with the Brookings Institute on March 4 in DC.

  • When House Representatives Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) traveled to Gaza to assess the damage done by the war, our Minnesota and Washington chapters mobilized to thank them for their efforts, making clear to both that they had the backing of many in their Jewish communities, and asking that they do a briefing on their trip.  On March 5 they conducted a briefing on Capitol Hill.

  • Brit Tzedek Executive Director, Diane Balser participated in a conference call with Senator George Mitchell and other Jewish organizational leaders from across the political and religious spectrum. During the question and answer section of the meeting, she raised the issue of settlements with the Special Envoy, who expressed the importance of studying the issue closely.

  • When Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) began circulating her letter to Secretary Clinton, commending both Secretary Clinton and President Obama for their statements regarding the urgency and importance of a two-state solution, and urging her to "use your upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank to underscore your personal commitment, and that of President Obama, to Israel's security and to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace," Brit Tzedek mobilized its base in letter-writing and phone calls to senators nationwide.  In just two days, 31 Senators -- nearly a third of the Senate--signed on.


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
info@btvshalom.org
www.btvshalom.org


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