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A Time for Candor

“Civility” is all the rage these days, but civility isn’t everything; there’s also candor. Nor should anemia be the price of civility; leave room for passion.

On June 29, readers of JTA were presented with an opinion piece by two ex-officio leaders of American Jewry: Lee Rosenberg, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Somewhat breathlessly, and for sure shamelessly, the two announced that Israel’s government has “worked and sacrificed for peace” and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken “bold” and “significant” steps in his pursuit of peace while the actions of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “sabotage the dream of peace.”

Were I not here constrained by civility, I might suggest that the Rosenberg/Solow column is pure poppycock. Netanyahu has been pushed and pulled, mostly kicking and whining, to the starting line; his “boldness” consists of a persistent effort to sucker the Americans.

Plus: Rosenberg/Solow make much of Israel’s settlement freeze, a freeze that has been thawing ever since it was reluctantly announced. The thaw is no secret; it has been widely reported. One example: The 10-month freeze, due to expire on September 26, contains a roster of permitted exceptions, and wily settlers have managed to go well beyond even these. Since completion of construction already begun was one of the exceptions, settlers in a number of places hastily poured concrete foundations for new housing, then claimed that this was evidence of a permitted project. More tellingly, settlements in the West Bank are energetically preparing for the formal end of the freeze, using the pause to prepare the documents and permits that will enable them, on September 27, to proceed immediately with the construction of 2,700 new housing units.

But the real issue, to which Rosenberg/Solow conveniently make no reference at all, is the occupation. Those who claim that Israel is a reluctant occupier must — but never do — ask whether there is any evidence of Israel’s alleged reluctance. The more than 300,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank did not get there by accident. And nowadays, an ever more vociferous chorus of Israelis insists that Israel must forever assert not merely control but ownership of the disputed territories.

As to their casual dismissal of Abbas, one is entitled to suppose that they were prompted by the Israelis, who have over the years specialized in rebuffing any evidence of moderation on the Palestinian side and then declaiming that Israel has no partner for peace.

Well, no surprise: Candor has never been among the priorities of either AIPAC or the Presidents Conference, nor does it constrain their leaders. Their job, as they see it, is flackery, the persistent depiction of Israel as virginal.

Two days after Rosenberg/Solow was published, JTA published a stinging rebuttal by Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street and Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. (Disclosure: I am an active supporter of both organizations.) Theirs is an exemplar of civility; they mention neither the authors nor their agencies, dealing instead and exclusively with the substantive issues Rosenberg and Solow raise.

Here is how they put it: “Decades of telling and retelling a comfortable narrative in which Israel is always extending its hand in peace, only to have it rejected by the Palestinians, understandably makes it hard to accept when the facts show otherwise. Yet when it comes to the state of the peace process in the Middle East today, the facts do show otherwise.” They then proceed to itemize their critical view of the freeze, of the Netanyahu commitment to a two-state solution, of Israeli provocations in Jerusalem.

So also they offer a very different take on Palestinian leadership: “Israel today does have a partner for peace: pragmatic, moderate Palestinian leaders who genuinely support the two-state solution and are working to establish order and security in the West Bank.” And then, “No matter who leads the Palestinians, Israel needs permanent, secure and recognized borders. Israel has to make clear both in word and in deed that it is ready to end the occupation, not with a verbal nod to the two-state solution but with a solid commitment to a Palestinian state on territory equivalent to 100 percent of the pre-1967 land with East Jerusalem as its capital.” At the same time, “Of course, Palestinians and the broader Arab world both could be doing far more to advance solutions rather than pointing fingers, and we are not saying only Israel bears responsibility for the present state of affairs. But the reality is that, partner or no, the status quo is unsustainable and the long-term outlook for Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic homeland is bleak without an immediate change of course.”

These are substantive arguments. It is hard to believe that Rosenberg and Solow are unaware that “the status quo is unsustainable” or that Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution is at best half-hearted. On the eve of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, it is even harder to believe that they, too, do not fervently hope for “an immediate change of course.”

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