The Floating Palestinian Pep Rally

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 22, 2010, issue of October 01, 2010.
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The Plaza Hotel has had its ups and downs. Once the very embodiment of Old New York elegance, it was purchased in 1988 by real estate billionaire Donald Trump, who said he would treasure it as a “masterpiece” but sold it in 1995 to pay for his divorce. The purchaser was Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder and the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. New Yorkers remember the prince for his $10 million donation to the wounded city in September 2001, which was turned down by an outraged Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In 2004 the prince sold the Plaza to arriviste Israeli real estate billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva, who disgruntled many New Yorkers by turning most of the hotel into condos. The renovated hotel-apartment complex is now managed for Tshuva by the Fairmont hotel chain, founded by American Jewish mega-philanthropists Ben Swig and Jack Weiler, but now owned by Prince Al-Waleed.

What better venue, then, for an awkward dialogue on September 21 between the leaderships of the Palestinian Authority and the organized American Jewish community? On one side were Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and his top aides, determined to prove their sincerity. On the other side was a posse of Jewish organizational chiefs, determined to show their open-mindedness, including Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Sprinkled among them, watching with the hopeful air of a village matchmaker, was a gaggle of veteran Middle East hands, former Clinton aides and assorted peace activists and journalists, including Madeleine Albright, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and the evening’s host, Slim-Fast magnate S. Daniel Abraham.

The wine was excellent, my prime rib was done to perfection and the smiles and bonhomie were about as authentic as Yitzhak Tshuva’s version of Edwardian elegance. The conversation, befitting the venue, focused heavily on real estate: ownership, occupancy rights and especially new housing construction. Abbas spoke repeatedly of his goal of “an independent Palestinian state that can live side by side with the state of Israel in peace and security, along the 1967 borders with agreed swaps.” He said if Israel and the Palestinians reached an agreement, the entire Arab and Muslim world would accept it and make peace with Israel. It wasn’t clear if he had run that past the Iranians.

Asked if he would agree to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state,” Abbas said Israelis could call themselves “whatever they want.” He said he had been asked repeatedly over time to recognize Israel in one way or another and he had done so repeatedly. He sounded weary of hearing the same question rephrased over and over. On the other hand, he didn’t say no.

Abbas’ dinner was the climax of a day jam-packed with heated appeals to American Jews to show enthusiasm for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The floating pep rally might have been a product of timing, given all the international leaders gathered in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Perhaps it was inspired by the approaching Sukkot holiday with its tradition of inviting strangers to dine — or, alternatively, its pointed evocation of a homeless, stateless people lost in the desert.

It also reflected the growing sense in Israel and the West Bank that negotiations can’t succeed without President Obama’s involvement, and that Obama can’t get in and stay in unless American Jews back off and give him some running room.

Whatever the reason, the heat was on all over town. While Abbas was dining at the Plaza, his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, had his own dinner in a private Manhattan home with his own assemblage of Jewish organizational chiefs, this time including David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism. Hours earlier, Fayyad had stalked out of talks with Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, who insulted the Palestinian leader by demanding that a document calling for “two states” be amended to say “two states for two peoples.” Oh, how the Palestinians suffer.

Speaking to his dinner guests, Fayyad complained that Israel should stop sending its troops into Palestinian-controlled areas, since it reduces his government’s credibility. On the other hand, he acknowledged that the Palestinians could do themselves a favor by giving up violence and incitement.

Yet another dramatic appeal to American Jews had been issued in the afternoon, further downtown, by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, author of the much-discussed June article in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” He was speaking at New York University’s Kimmel Center for University Life, which is named for the late real estate billionaire and Jewish mega-philanthropist Martin Kimmel. About 100 students showed up. Beinart urged them to stand up to the “Jewish establishment” and insist on their right to love Israel while criticizing its policies. He cited surveys showing that 79% of young Orthodox Jews between ages 18 and 30 feel “very close” to Israel, but only 16% of non-Orthodox Jews in that age group feel that way. Yet every student who rose to speak during the question-and-answer period identified himself or herself as “part of the 16%.”

The day’s warmest gesture toward Jews came earlier in the day, however, at the United Nations. In advance of the formal opening of the General Assembly, a summit of world leaders had gathered to discuss a plan to reduce extreme poverty, the so-called Millennium Development Goals. One of the speakers was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who blamed global capitalism for the world’s ills and called on “world leaders, thinkers and reformers” to come up with a better system.

His speech wasn’t the warm gesture, though. That came from the U.N.’s translation staff. They went silent on him.

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