American Jews’ Role: Staying the Peace Course

Walter Ruby is a former New York and Moscow correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. He is a commentator on the Jewish Communications Network, an online service

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli election brings back bitter memories of the even more shocking election of Menachem Begin in 1977 and of the subsequent failure of American Jews to take a principled stand against Israeli policies they knew to be wrong.

Everyone knew then that Begin believed passionately that the West Bank and Gaza should remain forever part of Israel, and that he advocated a massive settlement drive in the occupied territories to secure Israeli control. Yet few dovish Israelis and Diaspora Jews believed the United States would allow Begin to carry out his program.

First of all, we reassured ourselves, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the then-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who was both a political liberal and strong advocate of territorial compromise, would tell Begin that his settlement plans were immoral and politically unsustainable. With the organized U.S. Jewish community in its corner, we reasoned, the Carter administration would bluntly threaten Begin with a rapid cutoff of U.S. military and economic aid if he went ahead with his settlement plans. If that happened, Begin would have to yield because Israel was totally dependent on U.S. support.

How wrong we turned out to be. Schindler almost immediately declared his support for Begin, arguing that while he personally opposed Begin’s “Land of Israel” ideology, he had an overarching obligation to support whatever government the people of Israel elected.


Schindler’s decision set the tone. When, in the aftermath of the signing of the Camp David accords, President Carter tried to pressure Begin to stop settling the West Bank and Gaza, he was met with furious opposition from the organized American Jewish community. Jewish support for Carter dropped precipitously; proving a not inconsiderable factor in the president’s 1980 electoral defeat to the more Israel-friendly Ronald Reagan.

Today, we confront a not-dissimilar situation. American Jewry has strongly supported the Oslo accords. Netanyahu and his even harder-line allies like Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan have strongly opposed the peace agreement; Netanyahu has adamantly rejected the premise at the heart of it: that Israel should withdraw from most of the West Bank and allow the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that would live in full peace and security with the Jewish state.

To be sure, Netanyahu has stated in recent months that he will not try to reverse Oslo by reoccupying Gaza and the West Bank cities now under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Yet, other promises he made during his campaign are in direct violation of the accords, and, if implemented, will rapidly prove fatal to the peace process. Netanyahu has stated uncategorically that he will not honor the commitment made by Shimon Peres to withdraw the Israeli army from Hebron; that he will start new Jewish settlements in the West Bank; and that he reserves the right to send the Israeli army into areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority to root out terrorism. Netanyahu has pledged never to allow a Palestinian state. The best that the Palestinians can hope for, he says, is limited autonomy under Israeli rule.

At this critical juncture, the American Jewish leadership has a profound moral obligation not to swallow its moral qualms and fall into step with the new Israeli leader. Facing a tough reelection battle of his own in November, President Clinton will be leery of openly opposing Netanyahu’s program for fear that Republican challenger Bob Dole will undercut him with Jewish voters. In reality, neither Clinton nor Dole will be able to resist the temptation to pander to the Jewish community unless key Jewish organizational leaders make it clear that they remain strongly committed to the Oslo agreements.


American Jews must choose. They cannot blithely split the moral difference by declaring support for Shimon Peres’ policies one day and Netanyahu’s the next. Either American Jews favor trading land for peace or they oppose it. Either they support the premise of ending Israeli rule over the Palestinians or they advocate an open-ended occupation that can only be enforced by brutal means violating all Judaic precepts.

In 1977, an anguished Alexander Schindler could plausibly claim in defense of his decision to go along with Begin that he would put Israel’s survival at risk if he chose differently. Today, Israel is infinitely stronger and more secure. Still, there is reason for grave concern as to whether Israel can survive for the long term as a tiny Jewish island in an Islamic sea if it impels another generation of Arabs toward the fundamentalist camp by insisting on its right to crush Palestinian aspirations in perpetuity. If American Jewish leaders share that concern, then they have a pressing obligation to state openly and forcefully that they cannot support the program Netanyahu has enunciated.