President Obama: Don't Just Talk Peace, Make Peace

05/20/2011 02:03 pm 14:03:16 | Updated Jul 20, 2011

There is an idea in my life as a rabbi that seems to always apply whenever I give a challenging, controversial or "political" sermon: I know I have succeeded when folks on both the left and right sides of the spectrum are upset! I always attempt to provide balance, even as I may take a position on any given issue. It seems that President Obama has succeeded in the same way with regard to his major speech on the Middle East delivered at the State Department. Israelis are mad; Palestinians are mad; progressive American Jews are mad; conservative American Jews are mad. Success! The most important lesson I have learned, in my 15+ years of working in the realm of Middle East peace as a rabbi and activist, is that this is not a black and white issue; rather it is the area of grey, what I like to call the "nuance zone," that the truth to solving this conflict lies. Any attempts at black and white will always result in failure.

Immediately after the speech, literally within seconds in this wired world, Prime Minister Netanyahu was saying he can't accept 1967 "indefensible borders," even as those borders, along with the same "land swaps" that were mentioned again today by the president, have been the basis of all agreements in the last 30 years. President Abbas has called an emergency meeting to discuss the speech, even as Hamas denounced it. Conservative American Jews were up in arms over the words "occupation" and "settlements," two realities that will need to be acknowledged and dealt with in any final deal, as everyone who operates in the "nuance zone" knows and accepts. Liberal Jews were angry that the president declared his "unshakable" commitment to Israel and her security, while seeming to declare that the United States would veto any unilateral move by the Palestinians to declare statehood this fall at the UN. Israelis were probably upset that the speech seemed to be catering to the Palestinians, while the Palestinians were probably upset that the same speech seemed to be catering to the Israelis. Bottom line is: when everyone is upset, you know the president got it right. In this case though, I would say: almost right.

While President Obama was bold, and according to some analysts totally groundbreaking, in his call for a two-state solution along the 1967 borders with necessary land swaps in a major speech, he didn't announce today how he planned to help the parties get to the end goal that we all know and agree is how any final status accord will look. There was an ad in yesterday's Israeli paper, Yediot Achronot, which was reprinted in the New York Times today, by J Street, where dozens of prominent Israeli security officials, including many retired army generals, businesspeople, academics and public officials, called for the exact same thing as the president. Public opinion polls among the Israeli and Palestinian populace consistently show, and have shown for years, that they are willing and ready to live with a two-state solution, and we know now that former Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas were incredibly close to a deal just three years ago. PA Prime Minister Fayyad has been working, with great success, to build the infrastructure and financial institutions necessary for a viable Palestinian state. Yet, saying the same things over and over again, be it in favor of a two-state solution, be it that there is no partner for peace, be it that the people are not ready for this reality, be it whatever phrase of the week you like to stall the endgame, just won't work anymore. If there are not negotiations, and probably if there are not serious advances made in those negotiations, by the middle of the summer, there will be a showdown at the UN and that is going to pit Israel and the United States against, as it is shaping up now, the rest of the world. I would urge the president, in his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and at the upcoming AIPAC conference, to go further than he did in this speech and declare his intention to personally invest in bringing the parties together toward the goal of a final agreement. He should travel to the region, to Jerusalem and Ramallah, and do the nitty gritty work that needs to follow such a grand and profound speech. There are so many reasons not to, I know: Senator Mitchell resigned, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, unmovable, hardline government in Israel, fear of Iran, and all of the extremist elements on both sides of this conflict. But, leadership is about finding ways to overcome the fears, stare down the nay sayers and move people through to the desired goal. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have the chance, along with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, to be these kind of leaders.

I close with a story I have watched this week that has gone mostly unnoticed: Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Ireland. Who would have thought, just 10 years ago, that the queen of England would have been invited as a guest dignitary, and could have visited Ireland, laying a wreath on the monument to those Irish citizens who fought for their independence? I bet George Mitchell thought it. I bet President Clinton thought it. And I bet ordinary British and Irish citizens, those not caught in the nets of their respective extremist factions, believed it. Has it been easy? No. Did it happen overnight? No. Are there those that still hate one another? Yes. But is there a lasting, holding peace agreement, normalized relations and a future much brighter and hopeful for the children of Ireland and England? Absolutely. 15 years from now, please God, may we be saying the same thing about the Israelis and Palestinians. Let's start now, seriously, before it actually is too late.