From what tap do American Jews drink?

August 25, 2006

In News

By Aron U. Raskas

In the three most recent years of the 21st century, successive Israeli governments have catastrophically undermined two fundamental principles that Israel and her supporters worked for a better part of the 20th century to establish. First, Israel’s historic claim to the territories of Judea and Samaria, and the notion that these territories are, at most, “disputed.” Second, Israel’s irreplaceable value as a strategic asset and reliable ally of the United States.

The government’s actions have not just eviscerated these concepts. They have perplexed and disillusioned Israel’s staunchest supporters in the United States – both Jew and gentile – who have worked arduously for decades to enshrine these principles in the foreign policy arena. Unless promptly remedied, Israel stands in mortal danger of losing the international support that it requires to securely exist.

Since June 1967, there has been rigorous debate about the wisdom of retaining the territories that came into Israel’s hands in the Six-Day War. Yet, almost no individual with a whit of appreciation for Jewish history would deny the essential right of the Jewish people to return and repopulate these territories that already millennia ago served as the cradle of the Jewish people.

From the days following the Six-Day War, through the process of drafting UN Resolution 242 later that same year, the Johnson administration parried the demands that Israel promptly withdraw from all of the territories that it liberated. Throughout the ensuing 40 years, with only a few sorry exceptions, successive U.S. administrations fended off attempts to pronounce as illegal Israel’s presence in the territories.

American support for Israel’s claim to Judea and Samaria reached its crescendo in President George Bush’s April 14, 2004 letter to then prime minister Sharon, acknowledging that it would be “unrealistic to expect … a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 …”

This U.S. support for Israel did not arise in a vacuum. Israel’s protectors in the United States, in the plethora of Jewish organizations that dot the American landscape and at the grass-roots level, have relentlessly struggled to shore up this support.

The unilateral removal of Jews from Gaza implemented by prime minister Sharon, after chiding Israelis for conducting an “occupation,” undermined in a matter of months any legitimacy for Israel’s presence in the territories. Likewise, notwithstanding his paeans to Jewish history, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s laser-like focus (until just last week) on unilaterally removing Jews from Judea and Samaria has further corroded the claims of his people to these lands, and with it any bargaining power that they had.

In a similar vein, consecutive Israeli governments and their U.S. supporters have worked for decades to ensure that Americans recognize the support that Israel provides in the Middle East. Through careful coordination – from important contacts at Defense Department levels, to meticulously managed visits to Israel by members of Congress, as well as by way of grass-roots lobbying and advocacy – Israel’s role as a reliable ally and strategic asset of the United States had become an almost unassailable truth.

Yet, Israeli actions over the past 12 months have actually damaged the interests of the United States. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was viewed as a reward for terrorism. It led to a government headed by an organization that the United States had labored, largely at Israel’s urging, to isolate as a terrorist entity. And now, the striking mismanagement of this war has only further undermined the U.S.-led global war on terror.

Short of erecting a billboard on Rehov Kaplan, it would have been difficult for the Bush administration to have more strongly communicated to the Israeli government its desire for the Israel Defense Forces to crush – forcefully, vigorously and without inhibition – Hezbollah’s forces. It was painful to watch the Israeli government start, hesitate, stop, falter and stop again as the American administration increasingly signaled its desire for Israel to complete the task. The administration’s disappointment was palpable, even if it remained politely inaudible.

All this now leaves Israel’s most ardent American supporters – Jew and non-Jew – increasingly disheartened. American officials have admitted in private conversations to being bewildered about Israeli intentions, and many of Israel’s Jewish supporters in the United States are no less befuddled.

Yet, much as we are pained, we will never waver nor falter in our ardor and support for the Jewish state. We know that our work pales starkly in contrast to the real life-and-death decisions made daily at all levels in Israel, by its government officials, military staff and every citizen in the street. Nonetheless, as partners in this struggle, as frequent visitors and people who send their children to study in the land, and who aspire to live there as well, we express these concerns to help shape the debate that has already begun.

It is not too late. The Israeli people must establish leadership with the fortitude and will to stand up for their principles and to lead those who look to them for guidance. They must preserve Israel’s strengths and unabashedly pursue its historic rights. Compromises may be necessary, but they can only be achieved – with peace and security – from a position of moral clarity and strength. Most important, the government must craft a coherent strategic policy message for its supporters to pursue.

Israel’s advocates in the United States are many. They are Jews from all walks of life, Christians in both the north and south, liberals and conservatives, and elected officials across party lines. They share a common desire to strengthen the Jewish state. To do so, however, they will require courageous, principled and unwavering leadership from Jerusalem.

The writer, a Baltimore, Maryland attorney, holds leadership positions in several important U.S. Jewish organizations; the views conveyed herein, however, are his own.