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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2000 / 20 Tishrei, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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The Middle East tells us the hawks were right

Building democracy must be the paramount goal of American policy towards the Palestinians -- IN 1994, a clutch of Orthodox rabbis in Israel called on Israeli soldiers not to withdraw from the West Bank as ordered. The US reaction was instantaneous. Some 600 rabbis from the Jewish reform movement penned a letter to Congress denouncing the Israeli rabbis as "fostering instability in Israeli society".

Reform leaders held a press conference at the Capitol, exhorting lawmakers to continue financing the new Palestinian Authority. The group also assailed the few US Jews who were voicing doubts about peace agreements with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. Among the most vehement of the enthusiasts was Ammiel Hirsch, head of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Hirsch now feels differently. "I have supported the peace process from day one," he told the American Jewish newspaper, Forward. "And it was based on the assumption that, at the end of the day, the forces of reason would prevail and the Palestinians would recognise that what was ultimately able to be offered to them was better than the current circumstances. That's not clear to me any more, and if that's not clear to me, my assumption is that there are many more doubts out there."

Rabbi Hirsch is right about the doubts. When Hillary Clinton attended a rally in New York on Friday to protest about the lynching of Israeli soldiers at Ramallah, a crowd of 15,000 booed her because she had once publicly kissed Mr Arafat's wife. Unlike previous pro-Israel demonstrations, which advocated "Land for Peace" deals, this one simply expressed solidarity with the Jewish homeland. "Israel, we are with you," read the waving signs.

In synagogues and via e-mail this weekend, thousands of American Jews expressed their shock at the lynching of Israeli reservists at Ramallah. They wondered whether it was time for the US to rethink the entire edifice of foreign aid for peace, at least while Mr Arafat remained one of its pillars. This even though Middle East reconciliation funding has long been the greatest single foreign aid outlay by the US government, which since the Camp David Accord of the 1970s has given billions of dollars to Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians to help them find a way to peace.

To understand the size of the change, it helps to recall the mood of the 1980s, during the intifada, or the 1990s, the time of Yassir Arafat's handshake with Yitzhak Rabin of Israel in the Oslo Accord. In that period nearly all Jewish groups strongly backed negotiated settlements, rejecting the tougher stance of Israel's Likud party. There were dissidents. Commentary, a Jewish magazine, argued that no good could come of negotiating with an unelected former terrorist such as Mr Arafat - that maintaining control, and not peace, would be his first aim. A few Americans supported General Ariel Sharon, Israel's biggest hawk, who in a speech at Oxford argued that peace was impossible until Arab lands embraced democracy. But such views were largely dismissed as bellicose extremism.

The pro-negotiation attitude was strongly encouraged by the Clinton administration, which from the start made a Middle East peace settlement with Mr Arafat one of its principal policy goals. Associating itself with the more doveish of the official Jewish organisations, the administration gave the impression that its view was shared by most of America's 5m Jews. Because the press also supported the campaign, most Jews simply followed, or waited. The US poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority, contributing among other things to training policemen.

But, year in and year out, violence continued to erupt. And this summer came the failed meetings at Camp David between Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, and Mr Arafat. The US wagered that the venue's historic symbolism would move Mr Arafat to action. Yet even though Mr Barak made a range of radical new concessions at Camp David - including putting Arab control of parts of Jerusalem on the table for the first time - Mr Arafat walked out.

This left both Mr Clinton and American Jews wondering whether negotiations had any future. Norman Podhoretz of Commentary says that American Jews began to wonder what Israel could possibly do next: "Give away the whole country?" When, after Israel pulled out of the holy site of Joseph's Tomb, Palestinians reduced it to rubble, coexistence in Jerusalem seemed more improbable. Even the fact that Palestinian deaths of the past month far outnumbered Jewish ones did not sway the Americans, who began likening Israel's actions to Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. A September survey by the American Jewish Committee found that more than three-quarters of US Jews opposed ceding control of Jerusalem's Temple Mount to Arabs.

Nor are Jews the only doubters. Over the weekend, many Arab-Americans expressed their anger at Israel. But others sought to distance themselves from the angry mobs. After witnessing the Ramallah murders, Jamal Najjab of Pittsburgh sent an appalled e-mail to his mother, which a Pittsburgh paper reprinted. "This is not Islam. This is not Arab culture," he wrote.

The new consensus is a tough one. It holds that the old hawks were right: building democracy must be the paramount goal of American policy towards the Palestinians. The US set a precedent in this area when it passed the Iraq Liberation Act to support dissidents. Among the biggest supporters of the act, incidentally, was Joseph Lieberman, now the vice-presidential candidate.

In the case of the Palestinian Authority, ending exclusive funding of Mr Arafat would be a first step, as would demanding free elections and requiring budgetary transparency. Peace can come for the Palestinians, but only if democracy is theirs first.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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