In recent days, groups of pro-Israel activists have begun voicing alarm, mostly in private, over the prospect that the “road map,” the plan backed by the Bush administration for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is nearing implementation. This alarm, if translated into active efforts to delay or derail the road map, would be misguided and ultimately dangerous, even if well meaning.
I say “well meaning” because I know that many of the concerns expressed by these activists are sincere and worthy of careful consideration. It is understandable that they want to ensure, as the details of the road map are filled in, that concrete, effective Palestinian efforts to stop terrorism are implemented and that Israel is not pressured to take steps against its will. But those who are most active voicing concern and opposition to the plan now are saying more than that. They are saying, in effect, that they do not believe the Bush administration will protect Israel’s interests as the United States pursues a broad range of foreign policy objectives that are critical to American interests.
This is the last thing our government should be hearing from us now, as it struggles to maintain global stability and American credibility during this perilous hour. Plainly put, placing impediments now in the way of American diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian front is against American interests.
It is simply inconceivable that the Bush administration — which has always demanded more of the Arabs than of Israel, and which sent troops and missiles to Israel to help the Jewish state defend itself during this war — will ask Israel to do anything that would undermine its security. But it is also implausible that America’s current journey on the road to international pariah status can be reversed unless it gets more actively engaged in diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
We need to widen our parochial lenses and see the larger context of American diplomacy in the Middle East. Part of that context is the erroneous but nevertheless real perception that the United States is an imperialist power that wants to impose its will on the Muslim world. That is an increasingly, frighteningly widespread explanation both for the war in Iraq and for American policies towards Israel.
It is no secret that one of the causes of the mounting anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is the misperception that the United States has displayed unquestioning support for Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. This impression may have been reinforced by the Bush administration’s decision to give priority to the Iraq crisis before seriously tackling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But even now that the United States is becoming more active, some Arab leaders continue to foment or permit anti-American and anti-Israeli hatred in order to distract domestic attention from their own failings. Even if Israel did not exist, many Islamic extremists would hate America. We must continue to point out these truths.
At the same time, with American soldiers under fire in the Middle East, it would be a mistake for us to ignore our country’s urgent need for active steps to counter dangerous, mounting anti-Americanism not only in the Muslim world but also well beyond it. Our nation needs to contain the domestic problems faced by our key military allies in the Middle East, whose ongoing cooperation in the war on terrorism will be needed once the war in Iraq is over. We need to minimize instability in an increasingly interconnected global economy, which is so vitally important to America’s economic health. We need to restore our tattered credibility as a peace-loving nation. It could not be more obvious that actively engaging in diplomacy to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help America to achieve those objectives.
Acknowledging this does not run counter to our support for Israel or work against Israel’s interests. Just the opposite is true. Israelis need this kind of energetic American diplomacy as much, and perhaps even more, than Americans. It will be a “win-win” if the United States can turn the road map into an operative blueprint for stopping Palestinian terrorism, alleviating Israel’s need to respond to that terrorism and starting a process that could lead to the secure two-state solution that most Israelis crave.
In fact, the road map favors Israel in many ways. Although some of its language is objectionable because it comes too close to equating Israeli and Palestinian violence, the requirements it imposes on the Palestinians are virtually the same as those that Israel has demanded — from calling on the Palestinians to consolidate their security forces into one accountable entity to destroying the terrorist infrastructure and confiscating all illegal weapons. By the end of the first phase of implementing the road map, the Palestinians must recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and end all incitement.
For their part, Israelis are asked to pull back from territories reoccupied since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, impose a freeze on settlement activity and end punitive measures against the Palestinians — but only after Palestinian actions have been implemented and verified. Even the ultimate goal of a permanent Palestinian state will only be reached if there is full compliance with the road map’s provisions at each stage of the way. And if, in implementing this plan, the United States finds it easier to repair frayed ties with key allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East, that will also be in Israel’s interests.
We all know that Arab states will need to be involved in order for any peace process to have a chance to succeed, as Prime Minister Sharon has acknowledged. The “day after” the Iraq war, American leadership will be critical to ensuring that a new international coalition for peace and stability works to protect and help both parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is another important reason for the United States to rebuild its credibility as a peacemaker and a friend — not as an antagonist — to the Muslim world.
American Jews have an especially important role in this rebuilding process. We should start playing it now, rather than waiting for this war to run its course. Instead of ignoring the regional and global challenges that provide a context for Israeli-Arab peacemaking, we should let the administration, Congress and opinion leaders know that we understand that context. And we should endorse policies that will help achieve the closely linked objectives of both the United States and Israel, including the road map to Middle East peace.
Marvin Lender is chair of Israel Policy Forum’s executive committee.