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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Push for peace, but do so wisely

The Jewish Advocate

January 30, 2009

Last week, President Obama took his first steps toward fulfilling his campaign promise of placing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict atop his agenda by appointing former Sen. George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. And, as was expected, the move was both heralded and heavily criticized.

"Senator Mitchell's reputation for even-handedness and determination are assets to reversing eight years of malignant diplomatic neglect by the Bush administration and reestablishing U.S. credibility as an honest broker in the region," said Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, in a statement.

Balser's enthusiasm was countered by a statement released by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

"Mitchell's diplomacy cannot work until he realizes that the answer is not more one-sided concessions, but making clear that unless the Palestinians transform their culture and policies and goals and actions, they will not be able to get any more concessions or U.S. funding," said Klein.

Both groups have a point. With former President Bush, Israel felt little to no pressure to make concessions for peace. In the long run, this might have prevented further disasters, as withdrawals from strategic territories such as southern Lebanon and Gaza led to war with Hezbollah in 2006 and the most recent crisis in the Strip with Hamas.

Furthermore, Palestinians have continued their record of supporting terrorist regimes bent on Israel's destruction. Their support for these groups is reflected by figures that show the majority of Palestinians (58 percent) reject statehood alongside Israel (An-Najah University Poll, May 2008).

But sidelining the push for peace over the past eight years did nothing to change thinking on either side of the equation, and it did nothing to herald in a lasting calm. Whether or not anything could have been accomplished given the realities is another debate.

The final verdict on Mitchell's appointment will have to wait until after next month's Israeli elections, which will likely determine much of his approach to the process, as well as the likelihood of progress in any forthcoming talks.

Still, Mitchell is not just a symbol. President Obama means business and is bent on working out a peace agreement. And his new envoy's track record does give reason for hope.

Mitchell was instrumental in brokering peace in Northern Ireland in 1998 after decades of war between Catholics and Protestants. And his involvement in Bill Clinton's 2001 peace envoy arguably showed a sincere interest to set aside political allegiances for the sake of making peace.

Of course, Mitchell had ties to Irish officials, something he lacks in Israel (though his ancestral ties to Lebanon might or might not be a factor). And even the best intentions in Israel run up against seemingly immovable forces, as is likely with his previously stated advocacy for halting Jewish settlements.

But as American Jews who support Israel, our best bet with Mitchell is not dissimilar from the most rational approach to gauging the potential of our new president. Engage in discussion, make known our priorities and do not underestimate the power of hope. In fact, by all means, be filled with hope. Just do so cautiously and without naiveté.

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