In Mideast, time for White House to push for new peace negotiations


NEW YORK — After six years of Republican control of both houses of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, analysts see the Democratic victory in midterm elections as a repudiation of the way the Iraq war has been waged, unhappiness over the Bush administration’s social agenda and a larger sense that negative politics are bad politics.

In spite of a concerted effort by the Republican Party to convince Jews that Republicans will better defend Israel, 88 percent of Jews voted Democratic, the highest percentage in a generation.

As a minority, Jews grow concerned when the moral values of the majority become the litmus test for public policy. And an October 2006 by the American Jewish Committee shows that, by a 2-to-1 margin, American Jews do not support the war in Iraq.

Most Jews do not vote solely on one issue, even those passionately committed to the security of the State of Israel, so no one was surprised at the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish vote.

In fact, when it comes to Israel, Democrats and Republicans are pretty much indistinguishable. If there are members of Congress who are truly antagonistic toward Israel, they keep their views secret.

There’s great consensus that the United States must continue to stand solidly with Israel when it’s attacked, protect it with generous foreign aid and provide a veto at the United Nations when patently anti-Israel resolutions are proposed in the Security Council.

This stance reflects the will of the majority of Americans who, poll after poll, identify with and strongly support the State of Israel.

The problem is, after six years of suicide bombs and rocket attacks, emboldened terrorists and a looming nuclear threat from Iran, few can claim that Israel is better off, despite such powerful support from the White House and Congress.

The White House could not protect Israel from Palestinian suicide attacks and congressional votes could not stop this summer’s Hezbollah rockets from hitting Israeli cities that never had been attacked in the state’s history.

The only possible antidote to the violence and the suffering is a comprehensive, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position that has been promoted by the last three Israeli governments.

As my Israel Policy Forum colleague M.J. Rosenberg reflected on this week’s election, “Unfortunately, the default position on Israel has not helped move Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace. On the contrary, it helps solidify a status quo that grows deadlier every day.”

If members of Congress think that maintaining the status quo on the Arab-Israeli conflict reflects Jewish attitudes, they’re wrong. The same AJCommittee survey published after this summer’s war showed that despite their doubts about Arab intentions, a solid majority of American Jews still support a two-state solution.

In Israel, a September survey by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Center showed that 67 percent of respondents support negotiations with a Palestinian national unity government that includes Hamas, and 56 percent would be willing to talk with a Hamas-led government.

With such a clear mandate from the Jewish community, one would think Congress and the White House would be pressing full-steam ahead to find a way to end a conflict that causes unbearable pain to Israelis and Palestinians, and undermines America’s security as well. In fact, the opposite has been the case.

Six years of a Republican administration and Congress posed dilemmas for Jewish leaders. Access to the White House and the ability to pull weight in Congress — critical goals for a small minority — meant that many Jewish organizations were careful about challenging the administration.

It’s to the credit of many Jewish leaders and organizations that they held fast on many issues of Jewish concern, from immigration reform to racial profiling, from affirmative action to church-state separation.

In the search for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, the public voice of the Jewish community and the will of the majority of Jews were not always in harmony. If one goes to the Web sites of most U.S. Jewish organizations, it’s hard to find clear statements supporting the Israeli government’s commitment to a two-state solution. One can find advocacy efforts against Hamas and Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, but little that reflects the Jewish majority’s desire to end the Israeli-Arab conflict.

This may explain why Congress and even the White House see no benefit in engaging in a concerted and unrelenting diplomatic effort to help Israel find a peaceful solution to the threats that surround it. That should now change.

Based on the clear mandate for a different direction in the Middle East and with a new balance of power in Washington, we can hope for better. With no more elections to face, the Bush administration will be focused on its legacy.

The new Congress was voted in by constituents who want it to promote policies that will avoid a war of civilizations with the Muslim world. The State Department needs support in moving the Arab-Israeli conflict back to the front burner, where it should have been during these past six years.

This will also help to protect many Arab allies in the region who are threatened by a resurgent Iran. Peace in the Holy Land is a plus for everyone — especially the Jewish community.

The American Jewish community has well-deserved political clout. For those who remember Jewish passivity and powerlessness, there’s great pride in the ability of Jewish advocacy groups to affect policy in Washington.

This election confirms once again that Jews play a crucial role in the American democratic process. Based on what’s good for America and for Israel, and what the majority of American Jews and all Americans want, Jewish leaders will be expected to deliver on the most important issue of the moment — using their political strength to end the Arab-Israeli conflict by supporting the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living next door to a secure, Jewish State of Israel.

Accomplish this and President Bush, the 110th Congress and American Jewish leaders will boast the greatest of legacies.

David Elcott is executive director of the Israel Policy Forum.