Let's Talk...to the Presidential Candidates
By Diane Balser and Rob Levy

[This piece introduces a new campaign Brit Tzedek is launching,"Let's Talk to the Candidates," to move beyond general platitudes about supporting Israel into discussing the specifics of what we believe is a truly pro-Israel position—bringing lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.]

In this country, presidential campaigns serve as key opportunities to debate national political issues widely, and to become actively engaged in the political process.  Broad media coverage, televised debates, and candidate appearances mean that even those who might otherwise steer clear of politics find themselves considering their positions on key issues.   Around the water-cooler and over dinner, past and present Administration policies are discussed -- and with an ear to the ground, candidates formulate their positions in relationship to these conversations.

Redefining What it Means to be a “Pro-Israel” President

The candidates need to know that American Jews...want to hear specific plans -- it’s no longer enough to issue simplistic statements of “support” for Israel, or of a desire for “peace.”

Yet while a wide range of issues enter the discourse, the notion of actually resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very rarely discussed. Both Democrats and Republicans assume that a successful candidate must be traditionally “pro-Israel” – promoting unconditional American backing for Israel, its current government and policies – in order to gain the support of the American Jewish constituency. Periodically a candidate will get attacked for not being supportive enough of Israel, but unlike other foreign policy issues, regarding Israel it’s generally felt that no more discussion is needed, and general silence is encouraged.

This begins to appear particularly odd when we consider that American Jews tend to be liberal in their politics, including foreign policy, very few cast their votes on the question of Israel alone, and debate is one of our long-held traditions. Indeed, recent polls show that the overwhelming majority of American Jews, 87%, support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and another 68% said they are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who promises to take an active role in the peace process*.

Yet rather than address these realities, most candidates spend their time with Jewish audiences assuring our community that they will not abandon Israel militarily, focusing on conflict management and largely if not completely ignoring conflict resolution.  Many are afraid that they will lose Jewish votes or Jewish funding if they express anything else -- and it's hard to blame them, given the fallout, for instance, from Howard Dean's comment that he would take an "even-handed" approach to the conflict during the 2004 primaries.

But if this were to change, if we and our friends throughout the country were to introduce the notion that, in fact, the best way to be "pro-Israel" is to work to resolve the conflict, we could make a real difference in the reality of this election. Simply put, a "pro-Israel" candidate is one who calls unambiguously for a two-state solution and has a plan to make it happen.

Why the Role of the US President is Central to Arab-Israeli Peacemaking

We must let the candidates know that the role of their administration is absolutely critical to making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in holding both sides to commitments they've already made. The current Administration has badly neglected the Israeli-Palestinian issue until recently, and the results were obvious with their now moribund Road Map to Peace. Initially the source of real hope for advancing the peace process, the Road Map quickly became an abject lesson in the consequences of American diplomatic neglect and lack of follow-through.

Simply put, a “pro-Israel” candidate is one who calls unambiguously for a two-state solution and has a plan to make it happen.

This in spite of the fact that history has shown that US Presidents play a very important role in getting the sides to the negotiating table. President Carter stood behind the first Camp David Accords that has resulted in a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt; the first President Bush convened the Madrid Conference; President Clinton was a key player in the Oslo process, the establishment of peace between Israel and Jordan, and the Taba negotiations, which yielded what most experts recognize as the base-line parameters for any future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet it took the current President almost seven years to begin to truly engage in searching for a solution.  Israel and the Palestinians simply can't wait for the next president to similarly wait until the end of his or her term to do something substantive to bring peace to the region.

How to Really Get the Candidates Talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

At every opportunity, those of us who believe pro-Israel is pro-peace have to ask the candidates what they're planning to do to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The candidates need to know that American Jews want to see it end, and that we want to hear specific plans -- it's no longer enough to issue simplistic statements of "support" for Israel, or of a desire for "peace."

We need to do this at candidate events, in party forums, at town hall meetings. In the immediate future, those living in, or acquainted with people in, Iowa or New Hampshire have to make a point of getting this message out in time for the primaries in those states. We need to write letters to the editor, blog and make comments in online forums, and write letters to the candidates themselves. What does the candidate plan to do to bring real peace to Israelis and Palestinians? Will the candidate support peace efforts between Israel and Syria? Will the candidate engage Iran diplomatically, to prevent development of nuclear weapons and a war that risks Israel's security? These are questions that are not asked enough; we need to start asking them now.

One of the best ways to influence the political process is to be involved in it yourself. More than just doing advocacy, we need to work with and for the candidates -- whatever candidate you like, from whatever party you choose -- and talk to them about the importance of achieving a two-state solution. Volunteer with the candidate you prefer and bring the issue up with the campaign headquarters; get involved in local politics; donate to your candidate and include a note explaining your support for a negotiated two-state solution. And though it goes without saying, we also need to vote!

Of course, we ask you to do this in connection with your regular work with Brit Tzedek. We must continue to advocate as we become involved in the political process. You can tie the presidential elections into your regular Brit Tzedek organizing in order to make the conversation topical. Chapters can consider issues such as the November peace conference, settlement construction, freedom of movement and access for Palestinians in the territories, humanitarian aid to those effected by the economic blockade in Gaza, the possibility of peace with Syria, how best to approach Iranian's nuclear ambitions, and, above all, how should the next president approach these questions?

Our New “Lets Talk to the Candidates” Campaign

Whoever is elected, it is vital that he or she know that there is a strong, solid base among American Jews who want not “pro-Israel” platitudes, but true diplomatic engagement, with a negotiated, two-state resolution of the conflict as the goal.

Brit Tzedek's upcoming "Lets Talk to the Candidates" campaign will provide information and opportunities for you to engage with presidential and other candidates for national office. Please stay tuned to future emails and check our website often; we will keep you informed as the campaign develops.  Please use this opportunity to make a real impact on the direction our government will take concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In doing these things, we will be attempting to effect real change, and to achieve that, we must amplify our message. Whoever is elected, it is vital that he or she know that there is a strong, solid base among American Jews who want not "pro-Israel" platitudes, but true diplomatic engagement, with a negotiated, two-state resolution of the conflict as the goal.

 From a May 2007 poll of over 500 American Jews conducted by Americans for Peace Now and the Arab American Institute.

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


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