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Screaming Silence

No discussion of Annapolis can be complete without considering the roles of the minor players inside and outside the assembly hall. These are the folks commonly spoken of as the supporting cast. A better term this time might be unsupporting cast.

One of the most important roles was reserved for the foreign ministers of Arab states, from Saudi Arabia and Syria to little Qatar, who made appearances at the Naval Academy. The Arab states have twice gone on record, through resolutions of the Arab League, with a formal offer to normalize relations with Israel — embassies, trade, tourism, the works — if and when Israel reaches a satisfactory agreement with the Palestinians. So far it’s all words; they’re offering a payoff only after Israel has paid the full price and assumed all the risks of the Palestinian treaty.

Many Israelis understandably wonder if the Arab League offer is worth anything. Coming to Annapolis was a way for the Arab leaders to start showing good faith. Breaking bread with the Israelis and politely applauding Olmert’s speech were an essential down payment on the Arab League proposal.

The Arab ministers play the Sadat part in this drama, putting their bodies on the line. Alas, they haven’t played the part very well so far; they came to Maryland kicking and screaming, and undermined their cause. They, more than anyone, will have to work a lot harder in the future if this deal is going to work. They can no longer pretend to be bystanders.

When the story is told, though, no one will have more explaining to do than the organized American Jewish community. For 40 years, the major Jewish organizations have taken on as their most important task the defense of Israel in the American public square. They’ve placed a taboo on questioning Israel’s actions publicly, and those who do raise questions have been taken to task, publicly humiliated, hounded from jobs and community positions. Israel, we’ve been told over and over, has the right to decide its own security needs. Roadblocks throughout the West Bank? Not our business. Inadequate safeguards for enemy civilians? We can’t judge, but Israel knows what it’s doing.

Now, when Israel decides to take a dramatic step toward the peace of which it has dreamed for decades, there’s a screaming silence. Major organizations on the right actively lobby Congress to tie Israel’s hands — understandably, perhaps, given their theology — but face no censure from the central community bodies that never hesitated to censure the left. As for those in the center, they’re not sure how they feel.

Does it matter? Very much. Nationwide, congregants are wondering what to make of the topsy-turvy turn of events; they’d always been told that Arabs can’t be trusted and the Palestine Liberation Organization are murderers. Explanations are offered, if at all, only from properly hawkish (and anti-government) Israeli sources. The left has sympathetic literature, but gets no help distributing it.

Last week, at the last minute, a handful of major centrist organizations quietly issued statements expressing hope that Israel is right. But there was no serious campaign to get the word out. The Jewish community knows how to organize when it wants to; consider the continuing outcry from pulpits and newspapers for the freedom of three soldiers captured last year. The same could be done for a nation held hostage to war and terror for 60 years and now planning a daring escape. Why not?


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