One of the problems writing a column in a monthly publication is timing. Even if I submit the column at the last possible moment, there is still a week-to-10 days before the paper will be in your mailbox (provided that the USPS cooperates and the delivery is timely). I worry that the topic can become stale or even outdated during that time.
Unfortunately, I think I’m pretty safe this month. It is doubtful that peace will break out in the Middle East before this HAKOL appears in your mailbox.
Last month, I joined nearly 50 people from the Lehigh Valley -- plus an additional 14 Muhlenberg and Lehigh students -- at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. It is an important and empowering conference. Our group from the Lehigh Valley was our largest delegation ever to the annual AIPAC conference and included the rabbis of the three largest synagogues in the Lehigh Valley, as well as congregants of those and other synagogues.
Most of the buzz at the conference was on Iran and the diplomatic efforts to roll back (not simply contain) their nuclear capabilities and hopefully avoid some kind of military action. There clearly was a divide between Congress and the Administration, and between the Administration and the majority of the AIPAC conference delegates. It is subtle, but not insignificant. Everyone endorses, and applauds, the U.S. Administration’s efforts to bring about a diplomatic resolution. Everyone believes that the sanctions imposed on Iran have largely been successful and are a major reason Iran is in diplomatic talks with the P5+1 countries. Everyone supports additional sanctions on Iran should they fail to perform according to the interim agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in November in Geneva. The nuance is that most in Congress and many in the pro-Israel community believe the best strategy is to confirm those additional sanctions now, leaving Iran no doubt as to the next steps to be taken by those dedicated to preventing a nuclear Iran.
U.S. Senators Toomey and Casey have expressed their support of announcing the additional sanctions now, as reflected in letters and draft legislation proposed by Senators Kirk (Wash.) and Menendez (N.J.). However, it does not appear the legislation will move forward without a veto-proof majority.
But there was another undercurrent during the AIPAC conference, evident in many of the “drill down” sessions, relating to the current U.S.- led efforts to bring about some sort of movement in the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And I heard it from many: political scientists, political commentators, former State department officials, former IDF officers, former Israeli Knesset members, Israeli and American journalists and even from former PLO negotiators. What I heard and felt was in three components: (a) Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts to bring about direct Israeli-Palestinian talks may prove to be nothing short of heroic; (b) we may be closer than ever to something positive (I am hesitant to say exactly what, other than many felt we are closer than we have been in decades, or more); and (c) we should not be distracted by what each side says publicly. Everyone stressed that the difficult compromises that Obama and Kerry say are necessary to move the process forward will come about in direct negotiations and not in pronouncements prior to those discussions. The chatter is more for positioning and (hopefully) less for articulating immutable positions.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas have fragile political foundations. Netanyahu needs to keep together a coalition of unlikely partners, some of whom are making public statements expressing their respective political parties’ positions, not necessarily the position of the Israeli government as a whole. Abbas has struggles on both sides: Hamas in Gaza and ousted Fatah Central Committee member Mohamed Dahlan, currently living abroad. Public pronouncements by Abbas of accommodation to Israel might let him earn favor with the U.S. and the E.U., the latter beginning to express its frustration with Abbas and the Palestinians for their intransigence, but it won’t ensure his political position (or life).
A retired brigadier general from the IDF cautioned that the upcoming “Kerry Framework” will not be a framework agreement between the two parties. Rather, the Framework is an attempt to narrow the gaps so both parties can come to the table with their respective reservations. The struggle is how to create two equal narratives from two competing narratives.
It is said in the Middle East that you stand where you sit. With that foundation, I can think of many issues that will be deal breakers (settlements, Palestinian right of return, borders, Israeli military presence along the Jordanian border, recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people). And the recent public comments by those involved can easily lead us to believe that we are no closer to anything. But I am hopeful that those extremely more knowledgeable than I am might be right and that things are happening now that lead them to believe we are closer than ever. The stakes are high; I am willing to wait and see, and will work hard to place the public comments into this perspective.