ADL expert evaluates Mideast peace prospects

Kenneth Jacobson

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The Anti-Defamation League’s deputy national director told a St. Louis audience last week that there are points of hope within the stalled Middle East peace process.

Kenneth Jacobson, one of the nation’s most recognized experts on Israel and the Middle East, evaluated the prospects for a resumption of Israel-Palestinian talks when he spoke to a group of local Jewish organizational representatives. The group was convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the ADL’s Missouri and Southern Illinois Region.

Jacobson said the situation regarding the Israeli- Palestinian peace process was in a state of suspension as the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority assess their next moves. “Despite the uncertainty, some recent developments are positive,” Jacobson pointed out. “Secretary of State (Hillary Rodham) Clinton spent a long time talking with Bibi Netanyahu in Philadelphia recently at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. After those talks, both President (Barack) Obama and Secretary Clinton said they believed the prime minister is serious about peace.”

Jacobson noted the reports that an additional 1,300 units of Jewish housing in Jerusalem were announced just as Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden attended the JFNA General Assembly, an announcement that prompted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reiterate that he could not rejoin the talks until there was a “full freeze” on all settlements, “especially in Jerusalem.”

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The ADL senior staffer said that it was “probably a mistake” for Obama to have focused on the issue of settlements in his speech last year at Cairo University, in which he reached out with assurances to the Muslim and Arab worlds. “By focusing on the settlements, he moved the issue forward, making it impossible for Abbas to appear to be more flexible on the issue than the U.S. president.” He added that Abbas had been negotiating with Netanyahu and his predecessors even while construction was ongoing in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, but after the Obama speech, he could no longer politically afford to continue talking while Jewish housing was being built in those areas.

“The Obama administration has walked back from its previous stance, and has gone out of its way to stress that the U.S. commitment to a secure Israel is ‘unbreakable.’ President Obama’s recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly was a classic reiteration of the historic bipartisan support by the United States for a strong and secure Israel.,” Jacobson said. “These and other statements, including the positive meeting between Secretary Clinton and Bibi have gone a long way to removing the element of distrust that had existed for some time after the Cairo speech.”

Jacobson also pointed out the significance of the support Clinton had offered Netanyahu in getting him to agree to seek a 90-day renewal of the construction freeze. Included were an offer to give Israel 20 advanced fighter jets in addition to 20 that Israel has agreed to buy, “along with important diplomatic support to prevent the Palestinians from gaining U.N. recognition as an independent state outside the framework of the peace process. These are significant items of U.S. support.”

Jacobson added that Netanyahu has requested that Clinton’s assurances be confirmed in an official letter to make sure that they will be carried out.

“This was done because the administration had previously said that important assurances to Israel made by former President George W. Bush had been set aside by the Obama administration. Those assurances included a pledge that the U.S. would support Israel’s position that Palestinians could not claim a “right of return” to Israel proper, but could only “return to the new Palestinian state,” he said. “The Bush letter had also given Israel assurances that it could retain at least some of the settlements in the West Bank as part of a final status agreement.”

Going forward, Jacobson said the United States “will focus on one major issue to resolve if the talks can be put back on track: deciding on the final borders between Israel the new Palestinian state. Once those borders have been decided the other issues will be easier to resolve, although challenges will remain.”

Jacobson had high praise for the success of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. “Fayyad is following the example of David Ben-Gurion, who worked to create a ‘state-in-waiting’ before 1948 instead of taking a maximum position. Under Fayyad, the Palestinian security forces have been trained with U.S. support, resulting in much greater stability and economic prosperity in the West Bank. Fayyad’s emphasis on building a solid basis for a functioning state is in great contrast to previous Palestinian leaders who focused on maximum demands and supported terrorism.”

Regarding the ongoing threat posed to Israel and the Middle East region by Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons, Jacobson said, “Both the Arab states and Israel face a common threat from Iran. The Arab states, with the exceptions of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (who gave up his nuclear weapons push after the Iraq War started), have not tried to develop their own nuclear weapons even though they believe Israel has such weapons. The Arab states are very much aware that a fanatic Iranian regime with nuclear weapons poses a far greater threat to their own security than does Israel.”

Jacobson joined the ADL staff in 1972, and his present duties include overseeing and coordinating the formulation of policy and implementation.

John Wallach, past chair of the Missouri- Southern Illinois Regional Advisory Board of the ADL, joined Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC executive director, and Karen Aroesty, local ADL regional director in welcoming Jacobson to St. Louis at the briefing, held in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.