Rabbi Lerner’s Response to President Obama’s Middle East Address

We at Tikkun magazine commend President Obama for his call for the US to align with democratic forces in the Middle East, and for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders, his recognition that the Palestinian people have the right to govern themselves and reach their potential in a sovereign and contiguous state, and his re-affirmation of Israel's right to complete security.

However, we share with many in the peace movement a deep disappointment that President Obama is not willing to present a detailed US plan for what a just and lasting agreement would look like, and then spend time selling that plan to the people of Israel and Palestine (even though that will require going over the heads of the leaders of both countries).

Instead, by putting forward only a small fragment of what a genuine peace accord would include, President Obama set himself up for the response that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave: that giving up the West Bank settlements would endanger Israeli security. Only a full blown plan incluiding the details of how to provide security and justice for both sides, will advance the peace process–and the absence of such a plan was precisely what made the Oslo Accord signed under President Clinton ultimately a failure. President Obama must not hide behind the empty slogan that no one but the Israelis and Palestinians can determine the contours of the peace they seek–this merely avoids what the peace movements have asked for, namely his strong intervention to win over the hearts of Israelis and Palestinians to a peace plan that he could propose (e.g. one based on the proposal of Tikkun magazine). Vigorously seeking to build support for such a plan by visiting and presenting it directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people, does not constitute imposing a solution, but introducing concrete ideas that could re-invigorate the voice of the peaceful in both Israel and Palestine.

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President Obama was foolish to describe Palestinian attempts to gain recognition at the United Nations this coming September as an attempt to “delegitimate” Israel. That Palestinian strategy is completely non-violent and helps clarify to Israel without any anti-Semitic elements the strong desire of the world community that Israel should return to the pre-67-boundaries with some minor border changes that will allow Israel to incorporate some of the West Bank settlements closest to Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the current leadership of Israel is not interested in any reasonable peace accord. So Obama's call for a 1967 border return seems a bit like his 2009 plea for Congressional “bipartisanship”–an empty excuse for not really being willing to point out who is seeking peace and making copromises for it, versus who is a real obstacle. To do that, of course, would be to risk confrontation of the Israel Lobby and the Christian Zionists–something he simply does not have the courage to do. So while using his bully pulpit to call for support for the Arab Spring’s democratic directions, he failed to take on Netanyahu's anti-democratic and indeed repressive regime against the Palestinian people, and will soon be speaking at AIPAC and reassuring them that the US will continue to arm Israel to the teeth, and that Israel will pay no price for continuing the occupation and the construction of new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As we in the US have seen over and over again with President Obama, even when he articulates some good principles he quickly acts to reassure the people who don't agree with those principles (remember health care reform?) and then even before engaging in a struggle for his principles he moves to accommodate those with whom he supposedly disagrees. The most outrageous example of that was when his Administration vetoed a UN resolution based on principles that he and Hillary Clinton had themselves publicly supported–more interested in appeasing the Israel lobby than in standing up for a democratic and peace-oriented Israel/Palestine. But it continues in the US' ties to the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf states. Obama continues to be more bark than bite, even though his bark is far from what a principled liberal or progressive ought to be conveying.

But we also call on Palestinians to start to realize that a demonstration cannot be called “non-violent” if it includes throwing of rocks at border police, and that the continuation of allowing Palestinian schools and media to talk about Israel or Jews in a demeaning and dehumanizing way is counter-productive to creating the climate of mutual forgiveness and atonement necessary for a lasting solution to the current struggle. We say this though we know that at the present moment it is the Israeli leadership, not the Palestinian people, who are the major problem in trying to resolve the conflict.