On March 25th I got off the plane for the forth time at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. This time as Coordinator of the Delaware Valley Interfaith Delegation, a group of clergy and lay leaders who traveled together to be part of a Compassionate Listening journey that would take us to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, the Al Arroub Refugee Camp, the settlement of Tekoa, Beit Jalah, Ramallah, Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi and Baqa al-Gharbiyeh. We learned to listen with our hearts to Israelis and Palestinians from David Wilder, spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron, to Salah Shouky, Bethlehem City Council member and representative of Hamas, to Rabbi Menachem Froman a founder of the settlement movement who negotiated a truce with Hamas, to Suleiman al-Hamri, the Palestinian founder of Combatants for Peace, to Hussein Al Araj, Governor of Hebron, to Danny Seaman, Director of the Israel Press Office and even got to spend two hours with Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister, Palestinian National Authority. What we accomplished as individuals was made a thousand times more valuable because we shared our experience as a group made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.
So, descending on Washington to hear politicians and Jewish activists underline their support for Israel might present a challenge for a left leaning "peacenik"- Jew. I wanted to try to measure the contours of the tent that AIPAC would construct to see if it was large enough to include me. Now, at times, maybe even at my best, my positions have challenged the Jewish mainstream in Philadelphia to the extent that I was called a "self-hating Jew,"- and told on one occasion that a member of ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America would not appear on the same stage with me. However, I believe in the State of Israel and believe that all my efforts are educational and at most only controversial with a small c.
The Washington Convention Center is a big place and its main room was full of people from around the country waiting to hear from the opening speaker, Senator John McCain. The Senator began by speaking about history, the courage of President Truman and his own early relationship to Israel stalwart Senator Henry "Scoop"- Jackson. He then went on to talk about a recent visit to Israel:
"Not long ago I was in Jerusalem with Senator Lieberman and our colleague Lindsay Graham, and we went to the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. And for all the boundless examples of cruelty and inhumanity to be found there, for all the pain and grief remembered there, somehow I was especially moved by the story of the camp survivors who died from the very nourishment given to them by their liberators. They had starved and suffered so much that their bodies were too weak even for food. They endured it all, only to die at the moment of their deliverance.
These are the kind of experiences that the Jewish people carry in memory""and they are far from the worst experience of the Holocaust. These are the kinds of griefs and afflictions from which the State of Israel offered escape. And today, when we join in saying "-never again,' that is not a wish, a request, or a plea to the enemies of Israel. It is a promise that the United States and Israel will honor, against any enemy who cares to test us."-
The Senator received a standing ovation. The Senator went on to discuss the threats of Hamas, Hizbollah and to speak about his visit to the town of Sderot. He underlined the "unacceptable risk"- presented by Iran as both a sponsor of terror and in its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. He recounted the record of the Clinton Administration in trying hard to talk to Iran and being rejected by the less radical President Khatami.
"Even so, we hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before. Yet it's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another"-.Rather than sitting down unconditionally with the Iranian president or supreme leader in the hope that we can talk sense into them, we must create the real-world pressures that will peacefully but decisively change the path they are on. Essential to this strategy is the UN Security Council which should impose progressively tougher political and economic sanctions. Should the Security Council continue to delay in this responsibility, the United States must lead like-minded countries in imposing multilateral sanctions outside the UN framework."-
McCain ended by underlining the nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel:
"The State of Israel stands as a singular achievement in many ways, and not the least is its achievement as the great democracy of the Middle East. If there are ties between America and Israel that critics of our alliance have never understood, perhaps that is because they do not fully understand the love of liberty and the pursuit of justice. But they should know those ties cannot be broken. We were brought together by shared ideals and by shared adversity. We have been comrades in struggle, and trusted partners in the quest for peace. We are the most natural of allies. And, like Israel itself, that alliance is forever."-
The words were impressive and the audience responded with another standing ovation. Israel is a great democracy for the people who reside inside its borders. I have seen the 24-foot high wall surrounding Bethlehem, been stopped at checkpoints and rerouted by road closures. There is too seldom a similar high-minded pursuit of liberty and justice in the occupied West Bank except within the walls of the Jewish settlements. The Israeli Defense Forces and the Israeli Civil Administration control not only the ebb and flow of the Palestinian people, but often depress their ability to travel, work, and live normal lives. It is this ugly hidden face of the occupation that reinforces hatred and reminds Palestinians on a daily basis that peace remains a pretty word and an unlikely reality.
It is important to take notice that even as I am writing these words on Wednesday the two Democratic Presidential candidates will each be addressing the AIPAC Conference today. There is plenty of information on both the Conference and AIPAC on their website at www.aipac.org. The organization is proud of its success which can be measured in part by the size of the Conference, over 7500 participants including over 1200 students representing over 363 college campuses from all 50 states and 175 Student Government Presidents. AIPAC goes on in one of its Media Fact sheets to state that AIPAC is considered by a survey of members of Congress to be the second most effect lobbying organization on Capital Hill, tied with AARP. That, to use a McCainism, "-my friends' is power!
The first day was chock full of breakout sessions on all the key issues confronting the State of Israel including "Double Trouble: The Hamas-Hizballah Connection,"- "Global Players: The Impact of Russia, China and Europe on American Foreign Policy,"- "Inside Islam: Can the West Overcome the Extremists and Reach Moderate Muslims?"- "Credit Crunch: Cutting the Money Cripple Iran?"- and "Israel's Northern Neighbors: Syria, Lebanon and Their Evolving Role in the Middle East."- I decided to attend "Prospects for Peace: Can the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict be Solved,"- with Dr. David Makovsky, Director Project on Middle East Peace Process, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dr. Kenneth Stein, Director Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, Emory University and Dr. Tal Becker, Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel.
While Makovsky and Stein were fascinating and I could have spent the morning listening to their insights, it was Dr. Becker who held both me and all those in the crowded room in his hand. He is the chief Israeli negotiator of the Annapolis peace process and represents Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in daily negotiations. It was evident that the majority of those in the room and those attending the Conference lacked a great deal of faith in the current peace process.
"The Middle East is a place with an abundance of one thing in particular; bad options,"- said Dr. Becker. "We have to make the choice in how to empower those who want to work with Israel and disempower those who don't."- We have to guarantee that extremists don't get an advantage. We have to offer an alternative. That the process of negotiations offers results,"- he went on to say. "We face a serious dilemma. There is a hell of a lot of well-placed skepticism around. We have to try to gain credibility for negotiations and keep them secret on the other hand."-
Dr. Becker went on to describe the structure of the negotiations: Prime Minister Olmert and Abu Mazen, AKA President Mahmoud Abbas. Then Foreign Minister Livni and Abu Ala, AKA former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. Then Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Tal Becker all working on "turning a vision of two-states into something practical."- We are meeting almost every day. Trying to insure a prosperous Palestinian state with hardly any leaks,"- he said.
"We have made a choice that we will continue to talk because we don't want Hamas to dictate the agenda. There is a huge amount to do to develop Palestinians on the ground. Jenin is becoming a model of success. We must limit the options of extremists in Gaza and Iran,"- he said. "Our goal is to reach an agreement. But if we don't, to keep talking until we do!"-