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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Op-ed: An urgent need to get beyond nice words

The News & Observer

May 23, 2008

By John Friedman

DURHAM - Israel recently marked its 60th anniversary, and President Bush traveled to the region to celebrate. We American Jews, with our long tradition of standing by Israel in good times and bad, were happy to see our president visiting our spiritual homeland, but many of us are worried.

We fear the visit will prove nothing more than a waste of time, in the midst of a situation when there is no time to waste.

The parties and photo-ops are a lovely thing as Israel marks its first 60 years, but the defining issue facing the Jewish state is its ongoing conflict with the Palestinian people. Though the country has grown and developed, accomplishing much, Israel remains fundamentally unfinished, in that its inhabitants continue to live in fear.

And the simple fact is that the only way to complete the vision of a free, confident Jewish state is for that state to make peace with the Palestinian people, to share the land both call home and to allow both societies to live side-by-side, safely and securely. It's not clear, however, that Bush truly understands the stakes.

The president said during his last visit to the area that he believed a final peace agreement could be achieved before he leaves office, but he has yet to make the sustained and concerted effort that such an agreement (in any time frame) would require.

The United States must involve itself deeply in the peacemaking process, providing incentives for progress and disincentives for failure, mechanisms for enforcement and security arrangements for all, creating the kind of atmosphere that will allow the battered and weary Israeli and Palestinian governments to make the difficult compromises they will have to make. So far, none of this has been forthcoming.

This is not to suggest that no one in Washington grasps the immediacy of the issues. Our own 4th District U.S. representative, Democrat David Price, and his Republican colleague Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood circulated a letter signed by 50 other representatives, telling the president that "unless something changes, progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will continually be hampered by the violence in southern Israel and Gaza" and urging him to seek ways to "stabilize the Gaza situation, preserve the achievements made in peace talks, and maintain forward momentum."

This letter in many ways represents a sea-change in congressional attitudes to Israel. Once content to earn easy points with conservative Jewish audiences by loudly trumpeting their opposition to any true Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, many in Congress have begun to understand that the vast mainstream of American Jews would like to see a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Price-LaHood letter is another in a growing series of efforts made in the Senate and the House to shift America's foreign policy thinking so that it not only benefits Israel (where polling shows that 64 percent of the public wants cease-fire talks with the Hamas government) and the Palestinian people, but also is more in line with American interests.

The letter is also the first truly constructive initiative to emerge from Congress in response to the recent upsurge in violence in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. Calling for an unequivocal condemnation of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, an end to the blockade of Gaza that has led to widespread hunger and the "exploration of a potential ceasefire" between Israel and Hamas, the letter envisions an actual end to the violence, rather than suggesting yet more ways to simply manage it.

It is to be hoped that the Price-LaHood letter inspires Bush to think creatively about the conflict he proposes to resolve -- and motivates him to advance with a real sense of urgency.

And those Americans -- whether Jewish or not -- for whom Israel's future security and well-being matter deeply must take it upon themselves to encourage him to do so.

As Israel turns 60, it doesn't need more beautiful but ultimately empty words, more diplomatic visits with no follow-up or more support for failed policy. It needs an American administration that will make a real investment in delivering a true and honest peace to the region, allowing its citizens to finally realize their dreams of independence, security and peace.

(John Friedman is the rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham and the national chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, a national Israeli-Palestinian peace organization.)


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