Six months down the line, I think we can say with real clarity that Barack Obama meant what he said when he said he wanted change — certainly with regard to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Whereas President Bush spent his eight years mouthing platitudes and not acting to implement or enforce agreements initiated by his own government, President Obama hit the ground running, literally from day one.
Obama’s first months in office were a flurry of headline-grabbing activities. His first Oval Office phone calls were placed to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. He named the highly respected negotiator George Mitchell as the special envoy within 48 hours. And a week after his inauguration, Obama told the Arab satellite news channel al-Arabiya that “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state that is contiguous.”
Recently, Obama and his administration have been working more quietly, successfully pressuring the Israeli government to open Gaza’s borders to more humanitarian aid, and halt construction on the West Bank Security Barrier. In diplomacy, it is often best to start with headlines, but then move to quiet conversation — something this president appears to understand instinctively.
The work of building a peace-centered U.S.-Middle East policy however will require much more than a presidential vision. It will require, first and foremost, that the president know he has the clear backing of his constituents.
It is significant, then, that the American public already supports the president’s desire to move toward healing our international relations through diplomatic initiatives. Surprising to some, perhaps, is the fact that no group is more supportive of these goals than the American Jewish community.
A recent poll of American Jewish opinion revealed some facts that “conventional wisdom” has yet to incorporate: Fully 88 percent of American Jews favor active American involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and nearly 70 percent believe that President Obama “has a good vision for advancing Middle East peace.” More than three-quarters support a peace settlement that would create a two-state solution along the 1967 borders.
While these numbers are very important, it is much more important that the people behind them get their voices heard. Gone are the days when politicians can be frightened into not calling for diplomacy for fear of angering an entire voting bloc, and gone are the days when Israeli policymakers can expect knee-jerk American support. But none of this matters, if the president doesn’t hear about it.
The truth is that American support for Middle East peace has never been more important. The damage done to the prospects for an end to the conflict by eight years of Bush’s malignant neglect, the ongoing Israeli fear of rocket attacks, the ever-deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and settlement construction in the West Bank is incalculable. A generation of people — on both sides of the divide — who came of age when it seemed reconciliation might be within reach have seen the distance to peace grow not shorter, but longer. We need to act quickly so as to not miss this chance to establish a viable Palestine living in peace alongside a secure Israel.
Each side will have to make painful concessions, but that has always been true. Most Israelis do not live in the settlements, but the nearly 300,000 settlers on the West Bank play a towering role in Israeli politics and the Israeli national narrative. It is never easy to let go of a project that has deep historical resonance and powerful political allies. But if Israelis want to live in peace, they will have to start by completely halting all settlement construction. This will be a clear sign the Israeli government is sincere when it says it wants an end to hostilities.
This is why the Obama administration has stood resolutely on its demand for a construction freeze — a demand based firmly in the Road Map to Peace, a Bush administration initiative to which the Israeli government committed itself in 2003.
Any American who wants to see Israel live in peace and security will act to support the president’s vision for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they will do so quickly.
Diane Balser is the executive director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. She will be speaking about the American Jewish outlook on a negotiated, two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, at Congregation Beth El, 183 French St. in Bangor. For information, contact Barbara Katz at 947-6858.