No subject so divides the Jews of Israel and America as that which once bound them most closely: Israel itself. To appreciate the gap try telling an American Jew that George W. Bush was the president who best understood Israel's predicament and watch his jaw drop.
American Jewry is lining up behind a return to the hyperactive American peacemaking of the Clinton years. The Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice, according to an article in New York's Jewish Week, recently obtained the signatures of 800 rabbis on a petition to president-elect Obama urging him to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace process an early priority, beginning with the appointment of a high-level envoy to the region. And the new left-wing group J Street contacted the Obama transition team to argue that American Jews want a more active peace process and that large Democratic majorities in Congress provide the incoming administration with the power to push an aggressive peacemaking agenda.
J Street's is likely right. For many American Jews Israel has become a drag. If they were to wake up tomorrow and find that Israel had bloodlessly disappeared and its Jews had found safe haven elsewhere, they would be relieved. That includes the 50% of American Jews under 35 who told sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.
Others, such the Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice and Americans for Peace Now, are intensely concerned with events in Israel. But it is their cherished image of the Jew as the bearer of universal justice, not concern with the lives of Jews of Israel, that primarily drives their Middle East agenda. So long as Israel does not have peace with its neighbors and is the subject of widespread obloquy, that image is tarnished. .
Even among the 3% of Reform Jews and 6% of Conservative Jews for whom Israel is the crucial issue driving their voting choices (according to a May study conducted by the American Jewish Committee) there are many who would not protest intense American pressure on Israel, as long as known "pro-Israel" figures like incoming Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and prominent American Jews, such as Dan Kurtzer, Martin Indyk, and Rahm Emmanuel are the ones turning the screws.
And who can blame them when Israel's prime minister himself says that Israel's future depends on the speedy achievement of a peace agreement with the Palestinians? For all Ehud Olmert's venality, nothing so reveals his soul-deep corruption as having deliberately handed any future American president the club to pressure Israel without doffing the mantle of "a true friend of Israel."
THOSE AMERICAN JEWS who still fret about the safety of their brethren in Israel should at least ask themselves the question: Why do the majority of Israel's Jews view matters so differently? Why are they poised to elect as their next prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the bete-noire of the Clinton Administration in the heady days of Oslo?
Is it that Israelis are an anomaly in Jewish history – fanatic warriors craving permanent warfare? Or is it rather that they learned something over the last fifteen years?
Israelis do not have fond memories of the period of most intense American involvement in Middle East peacemaking under Oslo. Terrorist attacks claimed almost 1,500 Jewish lives in that period, and only abated after the IDF re-entered Judea and Samaria in 2002.
The chief lesson of the Oslo process is that there are no shortcuts to peace. Without a transformation of Palestinian society and a collective decision on the part of Palestinians that improving their own lives takes precedence over the destruction of Israel there can be no peace. That was the central insight of President Bush's June 2002 Rose Garden speech, and of Natan Sharansky and "Boogie" Ya'alon's calls for a "bottom up" approach to peacemaking.
What would be some signs of such a societal consensus developing among Palestinians? First, the investment of the vast international aid showered on the Palestinians in economic development projects rather than in salaries for multiple security services. Second, tearing down the refugee camps, which have been maintained for sixty years as festering sores producing a ready source of terrorists.
Third, ending the anti-Israel incitement in the official Palestinian media. When Palestinian leaders no longer feel the need to declare three days of official mourning for arch-terrorists like George Habash, or a national celebration in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, the planner of the Coastal Road Massacre, or to praise the heroism of Samar Kuntar peace will be closer.
Unfortunately, Palestinian civil society failed to develop under Oslo. The Palestinian economy worsened and the population was whipped into greater paroxysms of anti-Israel hatred and a death cult of suicide bombings. The Hamas takeover of Gaza and the division of Palestinian society into two has made peacemaking even more impracticable.
A return to the lawyers' obsession with obtaining signed agreement seeks to finesse the hard work of creating a viable Palestinian civil society. It places too much emphasis on the signatories of the agreement, no matter how weak they may be, and too little on those purportedly being bound. Such efforts are not only doomed; they are counterproductive. They would return us to Oslo's pattern of concrete and often irreversible Israeli concessions in return for unenforceable and infinitely recyclable Palestinian promises. And they convey to the Palestinians the wrong message – one that they need to do nothing but wait for pressure to mount on Israel.
Partly in recognition that past Palestinian undertakings have not been worth the paper they were written on, various proposals are circulating to reassure Israel that a large scale withdrawal from the West Bank would not just repeat the experience of the Lebanese and Gaza withdrawals. One such idea is the suggestion previously advanced by the new National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones that NATO troops be stationed in the West Bank.
But such suggestions fly in the face the lessons of recent Israeli experience. If we learned anything from the Lebanese and Gaza withdrawals, it is how limited is our scope of response to attacks from evacuated territory. Israel has remained passive while the Palestinians in Gaza went from launching Kassams at Sderot to shooting longer-range missiles at Ashkelon to now threatening the vital port of Ashdod. The presence of NATO troops, including Americans, would add another severe constraint.
The experience in southern Lebanon since the 2006 war also demonstrates that international peacekeepers cannot be counted on to hinder the buildup of the arsenals of our enemies. And even if they had the will to do so, NATO troops would lack the on-the-ground intelligence gathering capacity that has been the key to dramatically reducing terrorism from the West Bank.
At the end of the day, then, the divergent reactions of American and Israeli Jewry to calls for intensified American involvement in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking derive from the latter's recognition that its first moral imperative is survival.