WASHINGTON — The Middle East peace process is at an impasse. Unfortunately, the forces of the status quo in the Jewish community are moving assiduously to place the blame for this at the feet of the party who is most aggressively trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict: President Obama.
It’s time for the Jewish community to take a good look in the mirror at how it’s treating President Obama and his peace efforts. When the president’s chief of staff spoke at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington this week, he pressed for support for the president’s agenda. To understand why he had to do this, and why it is not yet happening, we need to appreciate how Israel policy works in Washington.
A good example of how it works is when American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris blamed President Obama last summer, according to JTA, for placing “… much more of an onus on Israel than the Arab world” during a meeting with Senate Democratic leaders. Such blame is typical for how Washington traditionally works on this issue. It was definitely noticed by the foreign policy community.
I know this because I’ve been working in Washington for nearly a decade on foreign policy and national security issues. For anyone who has worked in Washington in this area, it is a well-known fact that you work on Israel policy with great care. There is a quiet discipline that has been made clear to every foreign policy professional in Washington when it comes to the Middle East: do not deviate from the status quo on Israel.
Abby Wisse Schachter recently expressed that view on these pages when she argued that the Obama administration was failing to bring peace to the Middle East because it did not support freedom and democracy there. That was an odd argument, especially because, at the time, President Bush’s advisors claimed that their war in Iraq was going to ultimately bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. They argued that all they had to do was knock out the tyrannical Saddam Hussein, and the Arab world would embrace Israel and America. Tragically, we have seen how that misadventure killed thousands, strategically benefitted Iran, and did not make a dent in promoting Middle East peace.
Let’s be clear: the idea that the Bush administration’s democracy agenda in the Middle East promoted reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians is fanciful. Had President Bush really believed in democracy, he would have engaged the democratically elected Hamas government after it won the Palestinian elections in 2006. But he didn’t, and somehow, the current reactionary voices see more harm being done to peacemaking by Obama’s diplomacy than by Bush’s failed war and insincere support for democracy.
Sadly, the only significant initiative for peace launched by the Bush administration — the Annapolis process — collapsed in the flames of the Gaza war after a fruitless year of negotiations barely supported by the Americans. Despite this failed track record, blaming Obama for not resolving a conflict that no president before him, nor the parties themselves, has been able to resolve, is the status quo message.
Yet reality requires us to understand the benefits of a peace process, even a flawed one such as what we currently have. When there is no credible effort to achieve peace, there is no hope and there is a vacuum. Usually, forces that violently oppose peace fill such vacuums. Not engaging is tantamount to throwing in the towel, and even if these governments are failing their people, we have a responsibility to try our best to keep the situation calm for the sake of the parties and our national security interests. That, thankfully, is the Obama position.
To be sure, there is more than enough blame to go around. We all know it. But what we are missing right now is the internal fortitude, as a community, to see how our actions contribute to this situation. American Jewish community leaders have been very adept over the years at shifting the blame away from Israel to the Arabs, even when they knew that both sides were coming up short.
Eighteen months ago, when I was creating strategy spreadsheets out of my home office for how J Street would reach out to both Congress and political candidates, I could never have imagined how quickly we would have succeeded in opening up the debate on Israel policy.
I hope that we can build upon this debate and meet Rahm Emanuel’s challenge. It is past time for the American Jewish community’s established leaders to build on Obama’s peace moves and the creation of J Street, and ask themselves about what they are really doing to promote Middle East peace, rather than to simply blame the one party who’s actually trying to resolve the conflict.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)