Obama Must Work Toward Two States

Published Originally in the JHU Politik on November 18, 2012.

Let us be clear: it is never a “convenient” time to work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We live in a tumultuous world, with many serious foreign policy problems happening all at once.

And, unfortunately, due to the nature of our political system, an American president has only so much political capital, time, and space to act on a number of issues before the next election cycle approaches.

In his second term, President Obama will need to deal with the rising possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, plan for the safe withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decide how to proceed with his controversial drone-strike policies, secure strong economic and military interests in Asia, and address problems that have yet to materialize. However, the time to use vigorous U.S. diplomatic leadership to negotiate a two-state solution is now; it will not be any easier four years down the line. Many experts agree that the window to achieve such a peace deal, –a deal supported in principle by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and every U.S. Administration since George H.W. Bush–is diminishing. Both sides know what the agreement would look like: what we now need is the political will to achieve it.

The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is strained, yet it is imperative that the two leaders get past their political differences and work together for two states. The two-state solution is simply the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, and for Palestinians to be freed from a 45-year military occupation and obtain the full political rights they deserve.

Negotiating peace is also a national security interest for the United States. We spend billions of dollars annually on Israeli security, but countries with clearly defined borders are more secure and better able to defend themselves against threats.

In 2009, Obama visited the Middle East, and Israelis understandably felt snubbed that he failed to stop to meet with leaders in Israel. But despite the lack of presidential speeches in Israel, actions speak louder than words. Under Obama’s leadership, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, have all publicly stated that the security relationship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger. The amount of financial and military sup- port the Obama Administration has given to Israel is unprecedented.

Netanyahu received a lot of justly-deserved flack from Israelis and the international community during the U.S presidential election for intervening on behalf of Governor Mitt Romney. As Israeli Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset, “Who are you trying to replace? The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” Netanyahu was open about his distrust of Obama’s strength, determination and capabilities, despite the praise that Obama had received from Israel’s intelligence and defense community.

On the Palestinian side, there is a partner for peace. Recently in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital… The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.” Hold no illusions: if the Palestinian Authority collapses (as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pledged to ensure if the Palestinians seek upgraded non-member status at the U.N.), the next Palestinian leader will not be so moderate, or so inclined to work towards a two-state solution. An inability to reach an agreement with Abbas and the PLO will only strengthen the hand of Hamas, making it more difficult to deal with the situation in Gaza. Rocket fire from Gaza is not an example of why peace is impossible, but how the absence of negotiations and agreements perpetuates an endless cycle of violence that leads nowhere.

Obama must use some newly acquired political capital to revitalize the peace process. Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama must move past rhetorical games and work to- gether for a long-term secure and just future. Early in 2013, I would hope that Obama travels to Israel and Palestine, making clear to both sides that the peace process will be a priority. The United States wants and needs their President to act forcefully and urgently, before it is too late.

Birthright’s Triumphs and Flaws

Op-ed published originally in JTA.
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WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (JTA) – After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.

Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.

I realize, though, that the Birthright model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in Diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it is rather easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more upon fostering a general sense of connection. This dynamic often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.

Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip is targeting a broad-based group of Jewish people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.

But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues while all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”

We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, with the food and with the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.

A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was telling some people about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations that face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only wasn’t I able to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about with regards to “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.

In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable by the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.

On the J Street U trip we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of Jews of the Diaspora. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.

J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.

If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would necessarily have all the answers. But I am positioned in a place where I am ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.

I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.