A new poll released last week from J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” political action committee, contained very promising data regarding American Jews and their views of the Middle East peace process. The poll found that, of 800 American Jews surveyed, 76% believed that Israel should negotiate with its enemies, and that 81% would support any peace deal the Israeli government made with an Arab state.
These numbers are very important in light of Israel’s recently begun peace negotiations with Syria (mediated by Turkey), in addition to the invitation of Israel to the French-sponsored conference of Mediterranean nations that convened in Paris this earlier this month, Israel’s tenuous cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s recent, painful prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, analyzed wonderfully by the Director of New America’s Middles East Initiative, Daniel Levy.
The talks with Syria, in particular, are a sign of progress and also a sign both Israel and Syria recognize the importance of a negotiated peace instead of escalation and war. These negotiations come even after Israel’s bombing of s mysterious site in Syria in September of last year, and Israel’s summer 2006 war against the Syrian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Almost as importantly though, these negotiations run counter to the wishes of the Bush administration to isolate Syria. If nothing else, this means that Israel (and American Jews, it would seem) have weighed different options, and chosen their regional interest over the expressed wishes of its largest and most powerful supporter. And in Gaza, it means that Israel recognizes that security assurances for both Palestinians and Israelis are necessary to pave the way for a durable peace, or even for sustainable negotiations.
Negotiations with Israel’s enemies also send a clear message about American Jews (of which I am proudly one). For quite a while, there has been a perception that American Jews are stauncher conservatives, especially on issues of security, than many Israelis. In a February poll done for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, 64% of Israelis (and even 48% of conservative Likud party members) favored direct talks with Hamas about a cease-fire and the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. These numbers, until Wednesday’s J street poll release, would have been deemed impossible among American Jews.
The J Street poll would seem to imply that many American Jews agree with their Israeli co-religionists. Yet conventional wisdom holds that American Jews are more conservative on security issues than Israelis. This perceived conservatism has led in part to suspicion of politicians who are viewed as “weak” on Israel and a consequent hardening of positions from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
This is particularly true of Senator Barack Obama, who in a speech to AIPAC in June argued that Jerusalem must remain undivided, a position that even George Bush has not taken. This approach is counterproductive and cannot bring the peace and security Israelis, Palestinians and Americans desire.
For many American Jews and numerous non-Jewish supporters of Israel in this country, it is difficult to see Israel compromise with former and current enemies. There is an intense (and historically justifiable) belief among American Jews that Israel must be responsible for its own security, and can only do this through force. This military recourse has proven all too necessary several times in the past, but is not a long-term solution. Indeed, the toll of keeping a nation at arms, either on active duty or on reserve, places an incredible economic and psychological burden on the Israeli people.
In order to ensure that Israel exists and continues to thrive, it cannot live in a state of eternal warfare. This means above all else that Israel’s Arab neighbors must recognize the right of Israel to exist.
Yet it also means that Israel cannot be an isolated outpost in the Middle East, but rather an integral part of the Middle East itself. To get what it wants, Israel must deal with its neighbors, it must negotiate, and when necessary it must compromise. Israel and many American Jews have already recognized this fact; it is time that public perception caught up.