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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Jewish Left Pressing Obama On Peace

The New York Jewish Week

November 19, 2008

By James D. Besser

Inauguration Day is still two months away, but President-Elect Barack Obama is already being pressed by Jewish doves to fulfill his campaign promise to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a top priority from day one of his administration — despite a deepening economic crisis that has swept most other issues off the table.

Anxiety on the left was heightened after the recent appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as White House chief of staff and amid rumors that Sen. Hillary Clinton could be appointed secretary of state. Both are seen by many on the left as too tied to hardline pro-Israel policies.

“The Jewish left has to keep up the pressure and to not concede that there are other issues that will keep Obama from fulfilling his
campaign promises,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

In a message to supporters last week, Rabbi Waskow wrote that “the serious possibility that Hillary Clinton might become secretary of state” has “alarmed many progressives who fear that as president, Obama will deliver not change but much the same foreign policy.”

Even if Clinton does not end up at the State Department, “it is causing a lot of worry among those of us who were very enthusiastic about Sen. Obama because he promised a fresh start in the Middle East,” said an official with a Jewish pro-peace process organization, who added that expectations have been rising because some commentators — including Israeli President Shimon Peres — have said the incoming president is interested in the Arab League peace plan dubbed the “Saudi initiative.” (According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Peres also denied that “Obama had said Israel would be ‘crazy’ to reject the Arab initiative.”)

Expectation angst is being echoed across the Arab world, where in the past unfulfilled expectations have often led to intensified violence.

“I’m sure this is an issue, but there’s not a lot we can do about it,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv and an activist with the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “All around the world, and in this country, there are expectations of change that will run much faster than any administration can meet.”

Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, warned that it is “too early” to draw conclusions about the incoming administration’s Mideast policies. He agreed that “expectations are high across the board, in virtually every foreign policy and domestic policy area,” but said Obama has “done a good job learning from the mistakes of both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton during their transitions. The expectations of something dramatic in the Middle East are exaggerated; it’s hard to see what can be achieved dramatically, no matter what you’re looking at — Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Israel and the Palestinians.”

With the pace of Obama administration appointments set to pick up, a number of left-leaning Jewish groups are working actively to convince the transition team that a majority of American Jews want more active peace efforts. And they are arguing that a more Democratic Congress will allow the new administration more flexibility in pursuing them.

“We believe this is a moment of opportunity, and he needs to move fast,” said Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. “At the very least, President-Elect Obama has to make it clear from the beginning what direction he plans to move.”

More than 800 rabbis have signed a Brit Tzedek letter urging Obama to make Israeli-Palestinian peace an early priority and to “appoint, within your first 100 days in office, a high-level, highly-regarded envoy to the region, an individual who has the ear of both Israelis and Palestinians, the respect of the American people, and ready access to your Oval Office.”

Balser said that while Jewish peace process advocates understand that the conditions the new president will face have changed radically in recent weeks, the early appointment of a special envoy early on could provide reassurance that Obama intends to pursue U.S. re-engagement.

“If he appoints a mid-level person, a lot of people in our community will be very put off,” she said, “but if it’s someone at a very high level, it could be a signal they plan to get serious.”

Balser said her group is not worried about the signals sent out by his early appointments, but instead about “the intense pressure that will be on him to focus on other issues.”

But she said Brit Tzedek has had “no contact” with the Obama transition team.

Not so J Street, the new pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, which claimed credit this month for helping elect a number of candidates who support its positions on peace.

“We’re weighing in both publicly and privately with the transition team to make it very clear we have a very strong opinion about what’s best for Israel and what’s best for the United States when it comes to issues of peace and diplomacy,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s founder and president. “And we are making it clear what this election means politically for American policymakers and politicians who want to pursue more active diplomacy in the Middle East.”

Obama’s 78 percent of the Jewish vote, the success of congressional candidates supported by J Street and the shift to stronger Democratic control on Capitol Hill, he said, will make it easier for the new administration to pursue a more active peace role without facing stiff congressional resistance — something Israeli governments have long used to forestall pressure from the White House.

Another Jewish peace group said it is too early to start lobbying an administration whose key foreign policy players have not even been appointed.

“We felt that if we come out hard now with specific proposals, it may not be constructive,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now (APN), which recently sent a letter congratulating Obama and arguing that he received a solid mandate from Jewish voters who support increased U.S. engagement.

“We feel very comfortable that President Elect Obama will do the right thing.”
Mark Rosenblum, director of the Queens College Jewish Studies Program and an APN founder, called for a “pragmatic idealism” among dovish Jewish groups that takes into account the dramatic changes in the political and diplomatic playing field in recent months.

He said it would be a mistake to demand or expect instant action on permanent status issues.
“There should be enough pragmatism to talk not just about the ‘penthouse’ of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, but about the ground game,” he said. “There are important developments in Jenin, in Nablus, developments with the new Palestinian security and law and order capability, that can be dealt with by the new administration.”

Rosenblum conceded that a number of Mideast realities — including the split between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank — may be “settling into a permanent barrier to the kind of negotiations we want. So the goal now has to be to advance a pragmatic idealist agenda for Obama, with the understanding of all the very real difficulties he will face.”

He said the Obama transition team should also be encouraged to pursue “other low-hanging fruit — such as the Israeli-Syrian negotiating front.”

Jewish groups on the other side of the peace process debate aren’t exactly hitting the panic button despite the radically altered environment in Washington.

“We have many Democrats who support our position that America must become more active in negotiations demanding that the Palestinians transform their culture and start living up to their agreements,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), citing lawmakers like Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.).

Klein said that ZOA has also been in contact with Obama transition officials, telling them “we are not at all opposed to having the administration become more engaged; all we asked is that part of that increased activity be directed that the Palestinians fulfill their obligations.”

Other opponents of past Israeli-Palestinian agreements expressed confidence that even if President-elect Obama wants to move forward aggressively, conditions in the region will hold him back.

What about the other side of the expectations game — the fact that Obama’s election has dramatically raised expectations of a quick turnaround in U.S. policy among the Palestinians and in the Arab world?

Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar at the University of Maryland, said that there are “broad expectations about reversing the past eight years and about starting meaningful, credible peace talks with the United States as a mediator” in the Arab world.

But that view is more prevalent among elites in the region; the Arab street has become “cynical about U.S. foreign policy. So expectations are high, but not enormous. They are expecting different language and a different message; that is not unrealistic.”

In the past, periods of soaring expectations followed by disappointment have generated violence; this time, Telhami said, there is both a greater understanding of the realities the new president will face and a greater skepticism about just how much U.S. policy is likely to change.




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