This was a good week for quiet diplomacy in regard to the Middle East. The pundits will say that nothing is happening, or that President Obama is shying away from his goals of a two-state solution, not doing enough to get things moving. However, as is usually the case with diplomacy, it is what happened behind closed doors, or in some unnoticed speeches, that matter most.
In a meeting with several Jewish organizational leaders on Monday, including two heads of pro-Israel, pro-peace groups, President Obama is said to not have received much resistance on his policy regarding settlements, a crucial obstacle to reviving hopes for a two-state solution. The meeting was frank, yet positive, and Obama was able to engage in meaningful dialogue, doing what he does best: listening and appreciating others views while also maintaining his stance and explaining his reasoning. He acknowledged the fact that there is a perception in the media and the mainstream Jewish community that he is unfairly pressuring Israel, while not putting any pressure on the Arab states. That perception, I guess, missed his speech in Cairo, where he called out the Arab leaders to do more, say more and engage more; and he did it in an Arab capital. We must ignore perception and deal with the facts. President Obama is working, from day one, to find a way to move peace forward. One participant in the meeting is quoted as saying that peace will come when "there is no daylight between Israel and the U.S." Obama rightly responded that while this might appear to be true, the last eight years has seen no daylight and no progress. Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J-Street, assessed Obama's approach, wisely, as "pushing while hugging." Making peace is never easy, to be sure, and it doesn't happen overnight. Like the economy, one man cannot change the tide of almost a decade of inaction, violence and empty gestures, in just six months. With Senator George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy in place from day one, President Obama has signaled his willingness to get engaged fast and personally work for peace. It remains to be seen if the Israeli government and the Palestinian government have the same commitment. If they do, then they should know a strong American president is ready to assist.
The other important moment this week, that went mostly unnoticed, was a speech by Secretary of State Clinton at the Council on Foreign Relations. She spoke directly to the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, calling on both sides to do their part. She directed comments to Israel about settlements, an issue that is finally coming to the forefront and being dealt with at all levels of government. For too long, despite having agreements that call for settlement freezes, past American administrations have turned a blind eye to the construction and expansion of settlements on land that will be part of an eventual Palestinian state. I am gratified to see that the Obama administration, from the top down, is not shying away from this crucial issue. And, in the next paragraph, Secretary Clinton goes on to say:
"Ending the conflict requires action on all sides. The Palestinians have the responsibility to improve and extend the positive actions already taken on security; to act forcefully against incitement; and to refrain from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely.
And Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel's place in the region. The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But we believe that more is needed. So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now. Anwar Sadat and King Hussein crossed important thresholds, and their boldness and vision mobilized peace constituencies in Israel and paved the way for lasting agreements. By providing support to the Palestinians and offering an opening, however modest, to the Israelis, the Arab states could have the same impact. So I say to all sides: Sending messages of peace is not enough. You must also act against the cultures of hate, intolerance and disrespect that perpetuate conflict." (www.state.gov)
This speech, touted as a major address, received little to no coverage in the mainstream media or on talk-radio. Yet, her call to the Arab world, especially saying they must "prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel's place in the region," is a major statement, one that the Jewish world has been asking for desperately. Similarly, the Palestinian Prime Minister gave a speech a few weeks ago that called for his people to work for peace, accept responsibility for their lives and build the necessary infrastructure to assure they are ready when a peace treaty arrives. Again, no coverage. So, perception reigns while the facts go unreported.
As an American-Jewish leader, I am gratified to know that this president, and his team, are working diligently to find the path back toward peace. Pressure is being applied to all sides, conversations are being had, diplomats are engaging and we are seeing activity unlike anything we have seen in decades. We must not back away, afraid, when the going gets tough. Israel knows that a Palestinian state is the answer to living in peace and security. Palestinians know that Israel is a reality in the region and it is in their best interest to make peace. And, America knows that ending this conflict would be one of the greatest achievements for our national security interests, not to mention world peace. As Moses said to Joshua when he passed the reigns of leadership: Chazak v'amatz, go forward with strength and courage!