U.S. Jews Should Offer Abbas a Helping Hand

Marvin Lender, a former national chairman of United Jewish Appeal, heads the executive committee of Israel Policy Forum. Jonathan Jacoby is the founding director of Israel Policy Forum.

On a recent trip to the Middle East, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for our help.

It was his first meeting with an American Jewish group since becoming prime minister, and he received us in his cramped Ramallah office. After so many months of bad news, it was heartening to hear a Palestinian leader say -- and to believe him when he said it -- “I am committed to ending all violence against all Israelis.”

Yet the meeting was also tinged with a sense of irony. There we were, not only listening to the appeals of one of the founders of Fatah, the largest Palestine Liberation Organization faction and Israel’s former archenemy, but also understanding that we had a stake in his success.

As pro-Israel advocates, we believe that his success is essential because it would mean more security for Israel. As Americans, we want him to prevail because it would mean that democracy, accountability and other powerful American principles had established an important beachhead in the Arab world.


The success of President Bush’s new peace initiative, and the ability of Israelis to be free to walk their streets without fear of suicidal fanatics, rides to a large extent on whether or not Abbas can establish a single Palestinian security authority.

So, although a cease-fire with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other violent factions would be good news, such agreements are not always trustworthy and don’t always hold. That’s why the U.S. must put Abbas in a position to disarm these factions and crack down hard on terrorists when it becomes necessary.

It may be that the most important thing we can do now for the Jewish state is to encourage our leaders here in the United States to give Abbas’ forces whatever is needed to rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s security infrastructure and the resources required to quash terrorists -- from training to technology to appropriate weaponry. We believe that putting these tools into the hands of a Palestinian Authority that is willing to fight terrorism would protect Israel’s security, not harm it.

This unprecedented political alignment -- moderate American Jews supporting moderate Palestinians along with Israel -- is what the Middle East desperately needs. American Jews must take this opportunity to broaden our definition of what it means to be pro-Israel.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a complex region like the Middle East -- filled with so many seeming paradoxes and contradictions -- it was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who most clearly articulated the challenge faced by American Jews: “The most important thing that Bush can do,” Mubarak told us the next day in Cairo, “is help Israel achieve security. That means giving Abbas and his government the tools to establish their authority and maintain security. This is what American Jews should be asking their government to do.”

Of course, we understand why Israel believes it cannot sit back and accept the slaughter of its civilians and soldiers. Israeli officials made this clear when they told our delegation that Palestinians must first stop violence before the Sharon government could take conciliatory steps like dealing with settlements.

On the other hand, we also see the logic in Abbas’ assertion that Israel must do more to create a better atmosphere in which he can function. Anyone who loves and supports Israel is not helping the Jewish state by ignoring this reality.

Understanding both sides, however, is not enough to defeat terror or break the cycle of violence. That is why the U.S., with the strong support of American Jews, must continue to play an active role in brokering a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, making clear which actions it finds helpful and which it finds unhelpful, and encouraging each party to take responsibility for its own actions. This is the fundamental logic that the American government has incorporated into the “road map” -- that both sides need to act on a parallel basis.

When it comes to being pro-Israel, American Jews have a choice. We can sit and watch the unfolding of a tragic Middle Eastern version of “Waiting for Godot,” with anger and hostility growing steadily while each side waits for the other to make the initial move. Or we can seize this opportunity to help pave a path of peace.

“ ‘The time is short and the work is great,’ ” we said to Mubarak, citing a Talmudic passage. “As our rabbis taught us: ‘It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.’ ”