American Jews have, on the whole, kept to themselves their misgivings about the way Israel is handling the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, tending to express their concerns only “in the family.” Few have wanted to criticize Israel, or U.S. policy in support of Israel, on an issue so intimately linked to the security of Israel, which not only all Jews but most other Americans strongly support. Yet today the suppression of voices of concern may actually be undermining the security of Israel by prolonging the intifada, postponing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and weakening the hand of the U.S. government in moving the Middle East peace process forward at a time when real movement seems more possible than it has for many years.
Although opinion polls in Israel show that there is a substantial majority for trading land in the territories for peace, and a thin majority for negotiating the issue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is strongly against doing either. This position is supported by the Jewish lobby in Washington so effectively that few senators and members of Congress have challenged it (the letter to the prime minister signed by 30 senators last March was a notable exception).
Without the support of at least a substantial part of the Jewish community in America, Secretary of State James A. Baker III will find it as difficult as his predecessors to promote a negotiated solution to the Palestinian conflict. Now that the PLO is tentatively trying out a more moderate approach, America’s dialogue with the PLO is only the first step toward realism and peace. Further steps can be encouraged or discouraged according to how the winds of public opinion blow on Washington and on Jerusalem. We have only to look at the instant effect that American Jews had on Israeli politics when they felt threatened by the proposed redefinition of “who is a Jew?” They created enough pressure to secure a coalition that excluded the religious parties pushing for the new legislation.
The Israeli coalition’s position is based on support for municipal elections in the occupied territories as the key to opening a way to negotiations with the Palestinians. For the past 16 months, the Sadat Peace Foundation has been promoting this solution with both parties to the conflict through two channels. An ongoing citizen diplomacy program meets regularly with Israeli and Arab leaders. The other effort is to focus U.S. senators’ attention on the advantages of municipal elections as an element in raising the prospect for peace in the region.
The foundation’s conflict-resolution efforts provide an alternative to help the Israeli government move forward on the peace process. Prime Minister Shamir has said that he would “never” talk to the PLO, and the United States’ decision to do so will not be enough to bring him to follow suit immediately. He needs an interim partner, not from Tunis but from the territories, and free municipal elections under U.N. or other international supervision are the obvious means for giving him such a Palestinian partner.
On Jan. 29, PLO spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman said that municipal elections under these conditions would be acceptable, but he stressed that U.N. forces would first have to replace Israeli forces in the territories. This signals PLO readiness for the first time to authorize indigenous Palestinian leaders to start the process of negotiating with the Israeli government.
Leaders of the Labor Party and some members of Likud are on record favoring a withdrawal of Israeli forces from centers of population prior to municipal elections, so it no longer seems too much to anticipate that a solid agreement may be within reach on this preliminary stage of the peace process, and that with such an agreement the intifada would come to an end. All it needs is a push from public opinion, primarily from the American Jewish community.
Some Israelis fear that municipal elections would be the first step toward the creation of a Palestinian state that would have a population much larger than that of Israel, and in due course probably would be armed by Arab neighbors to join in the final battle to push the Israelis into the sea.
Every grouping in the Middle East has its own private nightmares. Lately, generals and statesmen of Israel, many of them now speaking out from the freedom of retirement from official positions of power, have been pleading for their compatriots to awaken from fears deeply implanted in their consciousness 30 or 40 years ago. They argue, impressively, that Israel is now the strongest military power in the region, and its security is not dependent on retaining total control over a few miles of occupied territory that modern missiles and aircraft can traverse in seconds. Their expert testimony is that Israeli security is much better served by trading some land for real peace, internationally supervised and guaranteed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, leaving their Palestinian neighbors unarmed in whatever entity is eventually negotiated.
To continue the stalemate, even at the present level of violence, is too costly, politically and economically, for both parties. If this opportunity is missed through intransigence, then the real-life nightmare for Israel will be not just an intifada but a jihad --a holy war. It will be led by fanatics who are being fed by present frustrations, and who will make the PLO look like genuine moderates.
It is a momentous choice, and one that is likely to be made, for better or for worse, this year. It is a choice that will affect not only Israelis and Palestinians, but all of us on this shrinking planet. It is time for all who see the danger and the opportunity to be heard while there is still time to unite our voices to give peace a chance now.