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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Op-ed: We Do Need ChangeIn U.S. Policy In The Middle East

The Washington Jewish Week

October 2, 2008

By Rabbi Marc Gopin

It is settled: The election is about change. Sen. Barack Obama had made that his central motif all along, but now Sen. John McCain is onboard. Now that everyone is using the word “change,” it begs a question. The question is not “Who stands for change?” but rather, “Whose changes are really going to really make a difference, and what are those changes?”

One place where change is desperately needed is in the disastrous United States policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been in effect for the past eight years. It is a policy of studied avoidance, coupled occasionally by heavy-handed intervention decisions that lost Gaza and set back the possibility of a two-state solution. Israelis and Palestinians need White House leadership and leadership on the ground. Which candidate will provide that leadership is an essential and fateful question for the Middle East and for the world.

The president must be a person who sees the need for constant engagement on the ground in Israel, so that both sides have a third party they can rely on to push for compliance to agreements. Both sides of the conflict need a U.S. president who understands that there is no military solution to this conflict, and that careful negotiation has yielded the most hope and progress over the years. The president must have a keen understanding of the Jewish community of Israel, but also of the Arab world.

I once had a conversation with Sen. George Mitchell about what worked in his successful intervention in Northern Ireland. The answer was deeply committed engagement in which he as a special envoy could personally represent the president’s wishes and guarantees. This meant that as he negotiated, he could help both sides commit to a step-by-step process of positive change.

Why do both sides of any conflict need Sen. Mitchell’s kind of engagement? Because if the president is half-hearted or uninterested, then both sides have no guarantees that the other side will follow through on their promises. If either side does not follow through on their promises, then their leadership will be embarrassed politically and lose all possibility of leading their people in the direction of peace and a settlement. In a more positive sense, the American president is there to provide leadership, hope and a faith that we can successfully move the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in a better direction. The leaders of the region need to hear this, and the suffering populations need this kind of hope and leadership in order to resist the tempting promises of militant politicians and fringe groups. Americans need, therefore, to look for a president who has the qualities of care and compassion, but also a broad understanding of global conflicts.

There is an ancient story told in the Talmud from almost 2,000 years ago. It tells the tale of Aaron, the high priest and prophet, brother of Moses, the foundational lawgiver of Judaism. Despite his highest status of ritual purity, Aaron inserted himself into the dark depths of human conflict. Aaron was famous across the Jewish world for his capacity to resolve conflicts and turn hate into love, so much so that thousands of children were named after him because he successfully reconciled so many husbands and wives.

How did he do it? Aaron would first go to one person and say, “Look at your neighbor, look at how he is suffering, and how he really wants peace with you.” And then he would go to the other and say exactly the same thing! When the two met, they would fall into each other’s arms and weep with regret.

The world needs people of the highest stature to immerse themselves in the darkest problems of humankind. No one is more powerful than the president of the United States. Nothing is darker than the senseless violence and waste of life that we have witnessed in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We need an Aaron, we need someone with compassion, with care, with cleverness, who can take the risk of engagement and thereby bring peace to a Holy Land thirsting for leadership.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish community contemplates failures, and dedicates itself to change—change that that is sincere and powerful, change that will make the world a truly better place. Let us dedicate ourselves to bringing about the change so desperately needed by Israelis and Palestinians, and let us hope the Jewish community, along with all Americans, allows for this change by choosing the future leader of the United States widely.

Marc Gopin is the director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax and a member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom

 

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