Report from Israel: Jewish State faces serious concerns

By Barry Rosenberg

I recently spent two weeks in Israel. Although things are quite good economically and day to day, this is a moment of very serious concern.

The most immediate issue is a likely Palestinian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), and request for admission to the United Nations, expected in September. Although the United States has vowed to veto such a move in the Security Council, it is expected that the Palestinians will appeal to the General Assembly. Although lacking legal force, a vote will likely pass with a large majority – excluding the U. S., Canada and many Western European nations. The United States is working hard to gain the support of the European Union countries to oppose such a move.

Israel is committed to Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution. However, Israel believes, as do most western nations, that this must result from a negotiated settlement. Indeed, a UDI is a violation of prior Palestinian agreements. The problem is that such a declaration and U.N. recognition will not change anything on the ground – but carries several worrisome implications.

On one hand, it will add fuel to the growing global effort to delegitimize Israel; to falsely label it an apartheid state, unworthy of membership in the family of nations. Such efforts, rampant in the U. N., Europe and the Muslim world (and the motivation behind the Gaza flotillas), subject Israel to an unfair double standard of behavior. In truth, they represent a newer, more politically acceptable form of historic anti-Semitism – suggesting that Jews are the only people not worthy or permitted self-determination in their own state. This is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that a peace agreement must include explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

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A second implication is the possibility that this ill-advised move will trigger a Third Intifada, born of frustration in the Palestinian street. Having raised expectations, a decision by the Palestinian leadership to forego the UDI, might ignite a return to violence. Alternatively, a positive U.N. vote, followed by no change on the ground, could have the same impact. Moreover, it might shift the balance of power in the West Bank to Hamas.

Despite U. S. efforts, there is little if any momentum on the peace process. A major obstacle is the recent accord between Fatah and Hamas. Israel correctly (as affirmed by President Barack Obama) will not make a deal with a government that includes those who explicitly reject its right to exist.

Physical threats to Israel continue. The south continues to endure frequent missile attacks, and both Hamas and Hezbollah have dramatically enlarged their arsenals of missiles with ranges that threaten Tel Aviv and other major population centers. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt has led to a cooling of relations and the likelihood that arms smuggling into Gaza has intensified. For the fourth time, a natural gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel was sabotaged. In Lebanon, pressure on Hezbollah over the Rafic Hariri assassination could push it to launch hostilities. And we have already seen how Syria has tried to deflect attention on its internal repression, by encouraging protests against Israel.

Of course the most severe threat to Israel and the world, results from the unabated Iranian drive to produce a nuclear weapon. Despite biting economic sanctions, Iran is speeding up its program. Such an achievement will dramatically change the balance of power in the Mid-East and needs to be stopped.

Of course, the Palestinians claim the Netanyahu government is the obstacle to peace. It is true that he leads a more conservative, cautious coalition. However, he has articulated his commitment to a two-state solution his willingness to negotiate without pre-conditions and has signaled that he is prepared to accept a negotiated solution that reflects the attributes Obama recently outlined. But there are red lines, relating to security assurances, the exclusion of Hamas and the above mentioned recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In a panel discussion on the state of the U.S. – Israel relationship, retired Israeli General Ruth Yaron noted that Israel’s willingness to take risks for peace rests on two things: confidence in the Israeli Defense Forces and assurances of U.S. support. A key factor in building momentum for a return to negotiations will be repairing the strain in those relations. The White House recently announced that Obama will soon visit Israel. That is an important step.

In closing, I’d like to refer to a speech by Tony Blair at Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference, “Facing Tomorrow.” Discussing the Arab Spring, Blair spoke passionately about freedom as, “the condition which defines the human spirit.” He went on to articulate Israel’s core values, institutions and achievements and how they reflect the attributes that define freedom and the possibilities that flow from it. Blair reflected that Israel was important to him because in the quest for freedom, “Israel is a model” for the Mideast.

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Barry Rosenberg is Executive Vice President of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.