Beyond ‘Evenhandedness’

Opinion

By Abraham Foxman

Published February 04, 2009, issue of February 13, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There has been a lot of talk about the need for the Obama administration to engage on Israeli-Palestinian issues early and often, unlike the Bush administration. This can be a productive approach, particularly in light of the split in the Palestinian camp, as long as expectations are not raised too high. The primary purpose of such engagement should be to stabilize the situation and set the stage for an ultimate resolution of the conflict via a two-state solution.

Two pitfalls, however, must be avoided.

The first is the temptation to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to solving all of America’s problems in the Middle East. Adopting such a view would create unnecessary tensions between America and Israel. It would put too much weight on this specific issue and inevitably lead to demands that Israel be the party to make the greatest concessions. And it would not yield progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or on any of the other major challenges America faces in the region.

Second, the administration must avoid taking what some refer to as an “evenhanded” approach. It is self-evident that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will require concessions on both sides, and America’s role should be to give incentives to the parties to move in that direction. “Evenhandedness,” however, fails to take into account the vast differences in the historic relationships the two sides have had with America, in the institutional characters of the two societies, in the meaning of democratic values in each and in their respective approaches to peace.

Israel is an American ally in every sense of the word — strategically, morally and in terms of public attitudes. As President Obama said in his recent Al Arabiya TV interview: “Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount.”

Like America, Israel is a vibrant democracy, with a robust civil society, an independent judiciary and a free press. While the United States should help find a solution that serves the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, there is no moral equivalence between the two sides. “Evenhandedness” can only lead to a distortion of what American-Israeli relations are about; and ultimately, by ignoring the differences between the parties, this approach would fail to achieve the goal we all share of bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike.

What, then, should American engagement focus on?

It should, above all, provide an answer to what has increasingly become the accepted Israeli view that concessions to the Palestinians produce not moderation but greater extremism. This is what took place after Camp David, when then prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a state. And this is what took place after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. How can Israel consider tangible concessions when all the evidence seems to be that concessions make Israel more vulnerable and lead to more Palestinian violence?

The new administration, together with Israel, should respond to this challenge — the primary one standing in the way of real progress — by taking steps for the Palestinians as well as asking for steps by the Palestinians.

Confidence-building measures such as economic assistance, freeing prisoners and lowering obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement are all steps that need to be continued and, when possible, expanded. But they must be accompanied by American insistence on getting the Palestinian Authority to stop the teaching of hatred of Israel on television and in schools, to deal with terrorists in a more serious and consistent way, and to continue to develop responsible security forces.

It is also vital that the administration, in tandem with Egypt and the European Union, make sure that arms smuggling to Hamas does not restart. This is a vital priority not only to avoid further conflict but to assure Israel that there are ways of protecting its citizens short of going to war. Eventually some international presence and coordination could play a role in the West Bank as Israel considers concessions there.

It is often said that the outlines of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are fairly clear, but that the challenge is getting there. Final-status issues that are controversial among Israelis, such as settlements and Jerusalem, are resolvable, but only in the context of a process that fundamentally changes the dynamic with respect to the impact of Israeli withdrawals and concessions.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to create new realities that will give Israelis incentives to consider making hard decisions. Insisting that Palestinian leaders behave differently, providing mechanisms to reduce the ability of Hamas to make trouble, and creating some confidence that the international community can play a constructive role in preventing violence are the best things engagement by the Obama administration can produce. If there is success in these areas, then the stage can be set for the tough negotiations down the road that can ultimately produce a two-state solution, with both Israelis and Palestinians living in peace and security.

Abraham Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.