Obama: Urge Netanyahu to Make Peace

10/03/2012 06:53 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2012

A friend asked me if President Obama should have met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the U.N. last week. She asked if America's Jews will be angry at Obama for not being more supportive of Netanyahu.

No, I said. Netanyahu does not deserve or need overt U.S. backing right now. Not until he fulfills the promise of Israel's founder David Ben Gurion and the wishes of a majority of Israelis and gives the West Bank over to Palestinian rule.

Netanyahu needs to restore the peace process, put the land of the West Bank on the table and let the Palestinians go. He needs to remove young Israeli men and women from the checkpoints and the patrols in Arab communities.

I recall crossing Sinai in a local bus full of Arabs some years back. When we came to the Israeli checkpoint at Gaza, everyone fell silent. An 18-year-old Israeli boy in full uniform, sweltering in the searing heat with his assault rifle clutched in his nervous hands, walked down the aisle checking ID cards. His face was a sad mixture of fear and dread, knowing that many of the passengers would like to stab him in his back. And that he was provoking their hatred.

How long must Israelis face off against Palestinians in this way? Is it necessary? Why does Netanyahu not end it? He gives the impression that he'll never stop it and that anyone who objects is an enemy or a traitor.

America's Jews, like the Diaspora communities of Armenians, Cubans and other countries, feel that they deserted the hard life back in the old country. They feel they must be holier than the Chief Rabbi and more hawkish than Israel's defense minister when it comes to backing Israel and protecting her from threats.

But Netanyahu represents only a small, vocal and politically powerful group of Israelis -- a minority of the country's six million people who need religious party support to rule and who want to drag out the peace process while they plant enough settlements that "facts on the ground" will make it impossible to give control over the land to the Palestinians.

On one reporting trip to Jerusalem during the second intifada -- a time of terrorism and bombs on buses and mobs of stone-throwing youth -- I went to the Hebrew University campus and asked a young woman studying in the bright sunlit lawn what she thought of the current situation.

"I am ashamed of my government," she said, exploding in anger. "We are treating the Arabs in a horrible way. We should get out of the West Bank and let them have it."

Another Israeli said, "People are calling this intifada the settler's war. We are fighting because of the settlers."

And while the settlers and Netanyahu's right wing parliamentary coalition allowed the peace process to molder, arecent poll by the Brookings Institution found that two thirds of Israel's Jews say that Israel should do more to promote a comprehensive peace based on the 1967 borders with agreed modifications (small land trades) and a peaceful Palestinian State.

In 1993, Israel and the Palestinians accepted the Oslo accords calling for an end to Israeli military rule over the West Bank within five years. Back then, there were about 200,000 settlers living in the West Bank. Today, after 20 years of stalled, aborted and stymied talks, there are 550,000 settlers in the West Bank.

There are many reasons the peace process failed. Yasser Arafat rejected a peace pact at Camp David and rejected a last ditch peace pact at Sharm el Shaikh, which I covered for the Washington Times. Only President Clinton spoke at the end of the failed talks: neither Arafat nor the Israelis had anything constructive to say.

Outsiders are partly responsible for the Palestinian stalemate. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Libya and other countries pushed the Palestinians to keep up the armed resistance. They ostracized Egypt and Jordan for daring to make peace with Israel.

But outsiders in America also contributed to the stalemate. American conservatives, fearful Jews, Fundamentalist Christians and Republicans have all been too supportive of the settlers and their hard line allies in Israel. When Congressional leaders say there should be no daylight between Israel and the United States it empowers the settlers in Israel to dig in their heels.

What a foolish position to be in. Even within a loving family there is daylight. People disagree and they grow and prosper because of it. Daylight is a sign of strength, not weakness. We allow those we love and admire to criticize us, and they expect the same from us in return. Who else will tell us when we have erred or exaggerated or embellished or left a wholesome path?

But in the highly polarized U.S. political process, everyone is afraid to criticize Israel. They are a small state, modern and democratic like us, and they have been powerful allies over the years. Many Israelis have family in America or hail from the United States.

But we do our friends and allies no good by remaining silent over their inability to see the handwriting on the wall. Europe, which was an ardent ally of Israel from 1948 until 1967, has become hostile and unfriendly. Its academics boycott Israeli professors and its unions block Israeli goods.

Israel was once seen as a valiant little David who defeated the Goliath of five Arab armies in 1948. It absorbed a million refugees from Arab lands and survivors of the Holocaust. Israel sent technology and training to African and other developing states.

Today, Iran's bizarre President Ahmadinejad reportedly threatens to wipe Israel off the map and it continues to enrich uranium that seems intended for a nuclear weapon. But most of the world's developing countries recently attended a Non-Aligned Movement meeting. Increasingly, Israel stands alone but for the United States.

Despite these trends, the overwhelming majority of Israelis and a large number of Palestinians are ready to make peace. The United States does not help things along by backing up the small, militant group that Netanyahu represents while they appear so openly disdainful of any peace effort.

Mr. Obama. It's time for some tough love.