Jews Must Be Proactive When Lobbying for Peace

Today attention is focused on war with Iraq, but it will turn again to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon enough, and the American Jewish community needs to begin to prepare the American public and, more important, public officials for the possibility that Israel may take unilateral steps to maximize the amount of peace for its citizens and minimize the danger to them.

The preferred option for resolving the dispute with the Palestinians remains negotiations, but the new leader of the Labor Party is running on a platform that calls for unilateral withdrawal from the territories. Though he looks like a longshot today, it is not out of the question that Amram Mitzna will become Prime Minister. If that happens, the pro-Israel community will have to pull the kind of Linda Blair Exorcist 360 to shift policy overnight, something we did not do very well after Oslo.

Even if Mitzna loses, it is conceivable that Ariel Sharon will implement a unilateral withdrawal after the border fence is completed. A growing majority of Israelis already support such a move and, if the violence continues and the Palestinians fail to replace Arafat with a moderate leader, a critical mass may be reached that will make a unilateral move inevitable.

American Jews may have whatever opinion they want on the idea of unilateral action, but they cannot dismiss it as an option so long as it is under serious discussion in Israel. It is therefore vital that the rationale for this option be explained in the coming months to Americans. They must be informed that Israelis would love to reach a mutually agreed resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but that this may not be possible at this time. Americans need to understand that withdrawing behind a fence is not an attempt to ghettoize the Palestinians; rather, it may be the best way to protect Israeli citizens and, at the same time provide the Palestinians with the freedom they desire. Unilateral withdrawal means an end to the “occupation” and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

American decision-makers will need to understand the risks involved in such a move and why Israel might require additional economic and military aid and/or other guarantees. They will need to be made aware of the danger that the Palestinian state that emerges could become a terrorist entity and could threaten not only Israel but Arab regimes and U.S. interests. Ideally, American officials would be prepared to tell the Palestinians, “The conflict is over, you have your state, now we’ll support you so long as you build a peaceful, democratic nation, but we will oppose any attempts to build up a threatening army or to export terror.”

Why do we need to educate people about the unilateral option?

Consider what will happen if Israel decides to act unilaterally in the future. You can count on the Arab world, the Europeans and the UN to attack Israel and call for a reversal of policy. If the U.S. joins this chorus, Israel will have to concede, thereby foreclosing what may be its best option for peace. Americans believe that most disputes can be resolved by people of good will sitting down and talking, and it is difficult for them to acknowledge that Israel’s interlocutors may not be of good will. They will not understand Israel’s actions. Just think about the firestorms over Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem. They were nothing compared to what could be expected if Israel annexes a part of the disputed territories and then unilaterally declares a new border.

The only way to forestall such a response, and to give Israel the flexibility it needs to choose the option that its leaders and citizens feel best protects its independence, is to make sure Israel’s only ally will support their decision. I am not asking anyone to lobby for a unilateral solution, or any other option, but it is vital that the pro-Israel community lay the groundwork in America for all the options under discussion so that we are in a position to lobby policymakers for their support of whatever position Israel ultimately takes.