Middle East Peace: The Urgent Need for Leadership

We gather at a moment both promising and perilous for Israel, the Palestinians, and the entire Middle East. President Obama has been in office for fewer than 150 days and Prime Minister Netanyahu for even fewer, yet there is a new and welcome urgency to efforts to revive the stagnant peace process.

President Obama has responded to that urgency boldly in his Cairo speech calling for a new beginning in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world and, more specifically, in his remarks in that speech on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We take special note of the President’s explicit endorsement of the “unbreakable” bonds between the United States and Israel, and also of the steps that are now needed to move beyond stale debates and instead provide a framework that considers the needs of all parties to help them achieve a just, stable, and lasting peace.

The challenges are only too clear. The Palestinian political leadership is divided between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist or to forswear violence. Many of the Arab nations and elements of the Palestinian community refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Even after the war in Gaza, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will soon have spent three years in captivity and southern Israelis still the target of continuing rocket and missile fire from Gaza (recognizing as well that Israel has freely and voluntarily abandoned to the Palestinians dozens of settlements within Gaza). Palestinian civilians continue to live in difficult, often dire circumstances. The goal set through the Roadmap and at the Annapolis Conference to establish a free and democratic Palestinian state through the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty has not been achieved. Lack of trust due to the provocations of extremist groups, especially Palestinian terrorism, as well as the weakness of political leaders, have precluded the achievement of true breakthroughs. Textbooks and other materials used in the Palestinian areas continue to foment hatred. Significant gaps remain on final status issues, including borders of the Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, and a full range of security guarantees for Israel. And in Iran, the government continues to ignore the international community, to develop its nuclear military capability, and to provide funding and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Recently, attention has focused on the challenge posed by expanding Israeli settlements. The new Israeli government has been reluctant to commit to the two-state solution and the settlement freeze embodied in the Roadmap and reaffirmed at the Annapolis Conference. The Israeli Interior Minister announced on June 3rd, 2009 that he will move to expand settlements in the West Bank. The destructive impact of the settlements is aggravated by fringe settler groups that have expanded their lawless reach into newoutposts and hilltops, challenged the authority and legitimacy of the Israeli government and courts, encouraged insubordination by Israeli soldiers tasked with enforcing the law and keeping the peace, and escalated violence against Palestinian civilians.

Israel’s obligations regarding settlements are derived from the 2003 Roadmap, brokered by the Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia), which stated “Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report.” The 2001 Mitchell Report, prepared by former Senate Majority Leader (and current U.S. Special Envoy) George Mitchell stated “The Government of Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” This point was also reaffirmed in the Joint Understanding issued at the 2007 Annapolis Conference: “The parties also commit to immediately implement their respective obligations under the performance-based road map to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issued by the Quartet on 30 April 2003…The parties further commit to continue the implementation of the ongoing obligations of the road map until they reach a peace treaty. The United States will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map.”

Differences have emerged between the governments of Israeland the United States regarding unwritten agreements with the Bush administration, which, Israel claims, accepted continued expansion of settlements. On June 5th, 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “there is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements” and that “there are contrary documents that suggest that they [unwritten agreements] were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the Roadmap. And those obligations are very clear.”

Although we are mindful that it is still quite early in the Obama Administration, the first months suggest that it can provide the type of creative, determined and sustained leadership that is necessary to help the parties move forward. The President and his national security team have pledged to make the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority and have begun taking encouraging steps and actions to achieve it, including appointing Special Envoy George Mitchell and training a new and professional Palestinian Authority security force that can defend Israelis and Palestinians against extremist violence. The greatest contribution the United States can make in friendship and support of Israel’s future is to help create the conditions that will ensure a lasting peace, by, among other important steps, supporting efforts to strengthen economic, social and security infrastructure necessary for a stable and visionary Palestinian leadership capable of working with Israel to establish peace.

For diplomatic efforts to succeed, American engagement must be met with renewed commitment and with resolve by all parties to do what only they themselves can do: The Palestinian Authority must meet its stated commitments, including eliminating corruption from government activities, dismantling terrorist infrastructure, and abandoning a poisonous culture of incitement. Hamas must accept the established Quartet principles including renouncing violence, accepting prior agreements and recognizing Israel. The Arab nations that still do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel must agree to recognize and begin to immediately normalize relations with Israel and actively support the Palestinian government and other moderate Palestinians financially and diplomatically in the quest for peace.

Although Israel may need to retain some areas technically classified as settlements, the failure of the Israeli government to meet its commitments regarding the removal of unauthorized settler outposts and the halting of settlement growth are sources of concern. The settlement controversy is exacerbated by the exceedingly high current 4.9% population growth rate in West Bank settlements. Indeed, the population has grown from 100,000 in 1993 to nearly 300,000 at the end of 2008 according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. We are concerned as well with the establishment of some 100 unauthorized outposts since 1996.

The threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons capability also remains a serious concern to the United States, Canada, Israel and the international community. While as the U.S. government has continued to assert, all options remain on the table preventing Iran from obtaining this capacity must include robust international diplomacy and effective economic sanctions. Insofar as an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would allow for greater Israeli-Arab cooperation both in containing Iran’s ambitions and in undercutting Iran’s arguments that only a hard-line anti-U.S. posture can achieve substantive gains for the Muslim world, for Arabs and for Palestinians, such an agreement can significantly facilitate U.S. efforts to contain Iran.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Applaud and support President Obama and his Administration for President Obama’s clear statement in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world of the unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel, their unyielding commitment to Israel’s security and an honest and constructive partnership, and their early, determined, and strong leadership to help achieve Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security;
  2. Applaud the government of Canada for its outspoken, consistent and forceful support for Israel and the goal of a two state solution;
  3. Continue to demand that Hamas renounce terrorism, halt all rocket fire into Israel, accept prior agreements, recognize the State of Israel, and release Gilad Shalit, who this month marks his third year in Hamas captivity;
  4. Encourage the Obama administration to act as a catalyst, not imposing a solution, but rather engaging vigorously to ensure the best chances for a real and lasting peace with long-term cooperation and stability while working with its close ally and neighbor, Canada, in advancing the cause of peace;
  5. Commit ourselves to provide whatever support we can to the U.S. Administration, Canadian government and others as they engage in the intensive and sustained diplomatic efforts necessary to move beyond the untenable status quo
  6. Reaffirm the goal of the call made by the URJ Board of Trustees in 2004 for the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its prior commitments, including making all possible efforts to bring about an end to violence and incitement, and to continue its cooperation with Israeli security forces and American advisors to create viable Palestinian security forces;
  7. Support the calls by the United States government, in the spirit of prior URJ Resolutions (1978, 1983, 2001, 2004 and 2007), for the government of Israel to freeze all settlement construction and immediately dismantle illegal outposts, not only to fulfill its prior commitments, but also to do so as the politically wise and morally right action that enhances Israel’s efforts to preserve a secure future for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state;
  8. Call on the Government of Israel to take firm and consistent action against those fringe settler groups who challenged the authority and legitimacy of the Israeli government and courts;
  9. Continue to call upon the governments of the United States and Canada, as first resolved at the 1967 Biennial, to help foster successful negotiations, to expand and deepen support for Israeli-Palestinian peace among Israel’s Muslim and Arab neighbors, in order to foster simultaneous progress toward Israeli-Palestinian and a broader regional peace;
  10. Reaffirm our commitment to call upon the governments of the United States and Canada, as urged by the 2007 URJ General Assembly, to continue using diplomacy and economic sanctions, including limits on Iran's ability to import and produce refined petroleum products, to address the threat posed by Iran’s uranium enrichment, lack of cooperation with international inspectors, and support for terrorist proxies.