On the Israeli Elections: Remarks to the UAHC Executive Committee
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President Union of American Hebrew Congregations February 5, 2001
A few weeks ago I returned from a trip to Israel. Approximately half of my time was devoted to meetings with leaders of our Reform movement there, and the remaining time to meetings with Knesset members, government ministers, and leaders of political parties across the political spectrum. It has been nearly five years since I have given an in-depth report to our leadership on Israel, and it is my intention to do so at our Board meeting in Cleveland. At that time, I will share with you my thoughts about the progress of Reform Judaism in the Jewish state. For now, I would like to reflect for a moment on tomorrow's election, and its implications for us.
The polls will open in a few hours, and at the end of the day it is virtually certain that Ariel Sharon will be elected Prime Minister. If, in May of 1999, following Mr. Barak's landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu, I had told you that in less than two years Barak would lose in a landslide to Sharon, you would have thought me out of my mind. And if I had told you that prior to the election Mr. Barak would be urged to step aside in favor of Shimon Peres, perhaps the only major Israeli politician considered more unelectable than Sharon, you would have thought me a certifiable madman.
Yet the then unthinkable has in fact transpired. Mr. Barak today is considerably less popular than either Sharon or Peres, and is about to be rejected, probably by a substantial margin, by the voters. What happened?
Ehud Barak is in many ways a hero of the Jewish people. From the day of his election he has been obsessed with establishing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he has been daring and courageous in his efforts to do so. He has been willing to say things that needed to be said but that for thirty years no one else has been prepared to say.
So why will he lose tomorrow? Because he was obsessed with peace.
Obsessed with peace, he paid no attention to the domestic issues that are so important in any vibrant democracy.
Obsessed with peace, he brushed aside the ethnic and political matters that a Prime Minister must always deal with.
But most important is the simple fact that he is obsessed with peace at a moment when the Israeli public has lost confidence in the possibility of peace. Two events of the past year shape the current mood in Israel.
The first is last year's Camp David talks. Mr. Barak entered those negotiations and made unprecedented, far-reaching concessions. He became the first Israeli Prime Minister to touch the third rail of Israeli politics when he broached the subject of dividing Jerusalem. Jerusalem had always been the holy of holies of Israeli political discourse, but Mr. Barak was undeterred. And what happened? Was there an uproar, a political upheaval, a grassroots cry of outrage? Not at all. Israelis responded with approval, or silence, because they are desperate for a real peace. Mr. Barak believed that if he had presented a balanced peace plan to the voters in a referendum, including concessions on Jerusalem, the plan would have been approved. And I am certain that he was right.
But the second important event of the last year as the Al-Aksa intifada. Israelis did not expect Arafat to simply embrace the Barak plan. But they did expect he would use it as the occasion for hard bargaining that would eventually produce a settlement. They did not expect he would respond with fire and blood: with violence, terror and lynching; with the sacrifice of Palestinian children; and with an outpouring of anti-Jewish hatred.
Israelis on the left have always believed in the principle of territories for peace: Israel will give territories and the Palestinians will give peace. One political leader confided to me that until recently most Israelis accepted this view, and in fact felt at least a little guilty that they had not done enough. "Perhaps if we would give a little bit more," they would say to themselves, "we would achieve peace." But the latest round of violence has dramatically demonstrated that peace is not only dependent upon them, it is dependent as well on the Palestinians; and the Palestinians, it appears, are simply not ready.
Despite the almost daily reports on negotiations with the Palestinians, the fact is that Israelis have lost patience with these negotiations. They are far more concerned with immediate issues of day-to-day security. When I was in Jerusalem, I listened to Israelis of every political persuasion tell me that they would not shop in the malls and they would drive their children to and from school rather than permit them to ride the bus.
But why are not more Israeli voters afraid of Ariel Sharon? Isn't he a discredited politician with an extremist past?
It is important to remember that the war in Lebanon began nearly twenty years ago. Many Israeli voters are too young to recall the war. Many are immigrants who had not yet arrived in Israel. And even for older voters Lebanon is a distant memory. We well know from our own experience that voters rarely remember what happened six months ago, let alone twenty years ago.
This has been a bizarre campaign. Sharon and Barak both speak endlessly of peace, but in the near future at least, there will be no peace. Barak's "peace cabinet," the team conducting negotiations with Arafat, is as moderate and reasonable and flexible as one could possibly hope for. If they cannot bring peace, no one can. And most Israelis understand that. Therefore, for Mr. Barak to be the "peace candidate" is not a grand advantage. The advantage is with Mr. Sharon because he is not the "peace candidate," and is more identified with the security issues that are now Israel's top priority.
And what does this mean for us? I discussed these matters with a delegation of British Reform Jews when I was in Jerusalem. When we were finished, one of the British rabbis asked an important and pointed question: "Have we changed our position?"
I do not believe that we have.
What does the Reform Movement believe? If you look at Biennial resolutions over the last thirty years, and at statements of our board and leaders during that period, what you will find is this:
We believe that in order for there to be peace, Israel must end its occupation and its rule over the Palestinian people.
We believe that the way to end the occupation is for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated agreement based on mutual recognition that provides security for both sides.
We believe that territorial compromise and the separation of Israelis and Palestinians are essential elements of such an agreement.
We believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable, and indeed is already in formation.
It is true that peace may not be possible now, but someday it will be possible. And when it comes, it will be built on precisely these principles.
But what has changed in our thinking is our evaluation of Palestinian intentions. We must take note, with profound sadness, of the depth of Palestinian hatred for Jews and Israelis, and the ease with which Palestinians have resorted to violence and terror.
We are wise enough to know that the fault is not entirely theirs. After Oslo, governments of Israel of both the right and the left expanded settlements, and thereby undermined the principles on which Oslo was based. We are aware of the suffering of the Palestinian people, and of the degradation and cruelty that has sometimes resulted from Israeli policy in the territories. We know of the occasional overreaction of Israeli military forces in responding to Palestinian violence. Still, what is most important is this: at Camp David, Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state on exceedingly generous terms, and they chose to reject it.
Barak's proposal at Camp David embraced the philosophy of Oslo: there would be an Israeli and a Palestinian state in the Land of Israel/Palestine, each state recognizing and accepting the other. But Yasser Arafat responded by asserting the Palestinian "right of return" - which is a demand that Jews be removed from Palestinian territory while a million Palestinians be settled in Israeli territory. (As one Israeli peace activist put it, what this means is: You must get out of my house, but I can live in your house.) The "right of return" is nothing more than a rejection of Oslo and a rejection of Israel's very existence.
For much of its history, Palestinian nationalism has shown itself to be both foolish and murderous. At Camp David, once again, when a sovereign state was within its grasp, it could not transcend this legacy.
Nonetheless, we must not despair. A peace that is not possible now will be possible later, and it will rest on this same premise of one land with two states, for two peoples.
Perhaps this peace will come in a year, or in five years, or in ten, or in fifty. We cannot know. But this we do know. If there is no peace, then the land of Israel will be Bosnia: ten million Jews and Arabs sharing a small piece of territory, with no lines to separate them, engaged in never-ending violence and bloodshed. Eventually, I believe, eventually, the Palestinian leadership, prodded by the international community and the pressing needs of its own people, will recognize and accept this.
Therefore, what Israel needs right now is not so much a peacemaker, but one who will keep the door open for peace. It needs a Prime Minister who is committed to security for its citizens and to an end to violence, but who will also find ways to reduce tension with the Palestinians and to communicate a desire for a settlement. Surely it needs a Prime Minister who will refrain from steps that would incite the Palestinian population and preclude a peace agreement at a later time; by this I mean the expansion of settlements or the building of roads and installations in such a way that would make it impossible for a contiguous Palestinian state to come into being.
Can Ariel Sharon do these things? I do not know.
His background gives us cause for concern. Still, everyone with whom I spoke in Israel acknowledged that his actions as Prime Minister are impossible to predict.
What is our task at this moment?
If Mr. Sharon is elected Prime Minister, and I believe he will be, we will congratulate him on his victory. He will deserve our respect and support as the elected leader of the only democracy in the Middle East. However, that support will be neither blind nor unqualified; we are entitled to express our views, and we shall. At the same time, we know that decisions on Israel's security and well-being must ultimately be made by Israel's government and people.
In evaluating what we shall say about Mr. Sharon's actions, we shall look closely at the kind of government that he assembles. A narrow coalition with extremist religious and nationalist parties will be a source of great concern to us and to others. Needless to say, such a government would find it difficult to deal effectively with issues of security and peace, and would also be likely to initiate religious legislation that would further undermine freedom of religion and conscience in Israel.
The views we communicate to Mr. Sharon will reflect the long-held values of our Movement. We are concerned with peace for Israel and her neighbors, and with religious freedom and pluralism for the Jewish state; but we are also concerned with economic justice and equality for women, Ethiopian and Sephardic Jews, and Israeli Arabs. Some of Mr. Sharon's statements on domestic policy have been encouraging, and we shall urge him to move aggressively in this area. On these and all matters, as Jews deeply committed to the Jewish state, our task is not simply to sing Hatikvah or to say amen, but to champion those principles that we believe are at the very heart of the Zionist enterprise.
And finally this: at this difficult time for the State of Israel, when her people are subject to terror and attack, we remember that our ties to Eretz Yisrael are never dependent on any government or leader or political philosophy. We know that the Zionist idea originated in the soul of the Jewish people. We know that the restoration of the Jewish State represented the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the chaos and depredations of history. We know that the desire for peace is shared by the great majority of Israelis, who are weary of fighting and who yearn for reconciliation. Now, more than ever, Israel's pain is our pain, and her safety, our gladness.
Whatever the results of tomorrow's election, or any election, this is our message to the citizens of Israel.