Talking Peace and the Diaspora, do Jews outside of Israel have a role?

By Dina Kraft, JTA

JERUSALEM – Cloistered away in a snug meeting room with stone-faced walls and arched doorways across from Jerusalem’s Old City, some of the most important Jewish communal leaders in the world came together recently to wrestle with a question: Is there a role for the Diaspora in Israel’s decision making on peace?

The answer: Yes and no.

The forum was part of the annual conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel that identifies and evaluates challenges facings Jewish communities around the world. The consensus of the participants was that while ultimately it was up to the Israeli government and the Israeli public to decide the outlines of a peace deal, input from the rest of the Jewish world should be considered. In particular, several participants said, the issue of whether or not to divide Jerusalem is a matter that requires input from the Diaspora.

Furthermore, most in the forum of about 25 people agreed that the creation of a Palestinian state is not only Israel’s best hope of one day emerging from the conflict, it would be a boon for Diaspora communities as well.

“The achievement of a peace agreement would be tremendously liberating for the global Jewish people,” said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“It would allow us to devote our energy to other major priorities facing the Jewish people and the liberation of resources would be quite powerful,” Rosenberg said. “It would also come with significant risks and potential trauma, like the withdrawing from some territory.”

The challenge remains for the JPPI to move away from being an A-list talk shop to affecting policy on the ground. To that end, one of recommendations that emerged from the two days of talks was for the creation of a small forum of Diaspora figures to discuss final status issues with the Israeli government – a “go-to” team that the government could consult with, as the Institute’s founding director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, described it.

But Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, pointed out the difficulties of forming such a group. “Who do you call? Who represents the Diaspora? Who represents even American Jews ideologically? Politically?” Abrams asked

Rosenberg echoed that view: “The overwhelming feeling is that there is a role for the Diaspora, but how?”

Indeed, consensus was often elusive among the 120 participants, who represented academia and Jewish organizational and Israeli political leadership. In addition, some of those attending criticized the absence of women and participants under the age of 50 at the conference – something organizers said they were working to improve.

The challenges are not dampening the ambitious vision of the JPPI’s chairman, Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. diplomat who assumed the post after Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, stepped down in order to work for the Obama administration. Eizenstat said a key goal of his was for the think tank to have “more of a policy impact” on peace issues and other topics affecting the future of the Jewish people.

One move in that direction was the Institute’s decision to summarize the various teams’ findings on several issues into pithy, action-minded policy position papers for use by both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations. Among the issues dealt with at the conference: peace efforts, the delegitimization of Israel, conversion, European Jewry and Israel-Diaspora relations.

“What’s important is the effort to come to grip with the potential impact of the peace process on Diaspora Jewry,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who has served in the past as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. “There was lots of talking, lots of discussion … and at some point it needs to be translated into something more concrete. Is there action? An agenda to bridge the gaps and find specific ideas?”

During discussions about the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, sharp divisions emerged, with Danny Dayan, chairman of the settler movement’s Yesha Council, saying that it is a Jewish imperative to keep the settlements in place.

Others in the room suggested that Israel already has decided which settlements would stay and which would be relinquished in the event of a peace deal by virtue of having built the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Most of the major settlement areas are on the Israeli side of the fence and, with the exception of Ariel, the smaller, more geographically remote ones are on the other side.

Institute officials said that the subject of Jerusalem has created two camps: those who say that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel and those who suggest some sort of shared control or sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, where 28 Arab villages and refugee camps are also included inside the municipal lines.

“The people coming to the conference know how important Jerusalem is, but our discussion was how one differentiates between areas like the Temple Mount and [predominately Palestinian areas] like [the] Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Shuafat Refugee Camp,” Kurtzer said. “Once you start to draw distinctions, you can define things better. The group did not say give up ‘X’ or keep ‘Y,’ but were heading in that direction.”

The forum on the delegitimizaton of Israel garnered particular interest, especially regarding how Israeli policy and actions, especially military ones, such as the recent Gaza flotilla incident, play out – both for Israel on the international stage and for Diaspora Jews.

Noting the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in the world, Eizenstat spoke of the ripple effect a negative image of Israel can have on Diaspora Jews, particularly the younger generation. “Jewish identity is increasingly tied to Israel, and as Israel’s status improves, it will be easier for younger Jews to identify not only with Israel but Judaism,” he said. “When its image is negative, it undercuts that.”

The gathering supported the notion that one of the best ways to fight delegitimization was for Israel and the Diaspora to do a better job of promoting the Israeli narrative.

To that end, conference leaders announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was among the top-level speakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the gathering, was considering a tour of several college campuses in the United States.