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Keep Dreaming: Say it ain't so, Joe

To those fearing this crisis will worsen US-Israel ties, please don't say so.

March 23, 2010 22:29
US VICE PRESIDENT Joseph Biden and his wife Dr. Ji

herzl biden 311. (photo credit: AP)

Dear Mr. Vice President,

Unlike many others who have commented on the announcement during your recent visit of the decision to build 1,600 new housing units in disputed areas, I don’t believe it was an act born of stupidity. Or insensitivity. Frankly, I don’t believe anyone is that stupid, or that callous. No, I think what happened was intentional. And given that the skies were clear when you arrived in the Promised Land, no one could have expected you to wipe one cheek, turn the other and attribute what you felt to rain.

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While the affair may have receded from the headlines by the time this letter appears, I have no doubt that a huge chunk of indignation will still be churning in your gut, seasoned politician though you may be. Months of the most delicate diplomacy down the drain. Decades of steadfast support for Israel on your part dismissed. I can only imagine how infuriated you must feel.

So, first of all, I want to say I’m sorry. Not for asserting our right to build in Jerusalem – that’s for another discussion – but for disregarding your and your country’s right as loyal, long-time friends to be treated with respect, and not to be surprised, embarrassed and undermined, particularly not in the public arena. I can’t claim to be writing in the name of the government of Israel, but I can declare with confidence that I am expressing the sentiments of a majority of the Israeli public.

SECONDLY, NO less important than my need to apologize is my need to ask you not to give up on us. To those who fear that years from now this crisis will be identified as the turning point (for the worse) in American-Israeli relations, I have only one request: Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Those who hastened to make the Interior Ministry decision public most certainly wanted to embarrass you. I have no doubt that they were also motivated by a grander purpose: undermining your peacemaking efforts and derailing the process of restarting negotiations that we, our Palestinian neighbors, the region – indeed, the entire world – so desperately need. It would be an outrage to let them succeed. Which is why I want to take you back to several hours earlier in your stay with us.

You began your mission here with a stop at Mount Herzl to pay respects to two visionaries who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of ideals we cling to even in the most trying of times. I hope your experience there was inspirational, as in retrospect it is hard to imagine two figures whose legacies could be more instructive in the current context than those of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, on whose tombs you laid wreaths.

Herzl was well aware that the territory he wished to secure for the Jewish people was not uninhabited. Nevertheless, he dreamed that the indigenous Arab population would welcome us with open arms – and we, them. In his utopian novel Altneuland, the government of the Jewish state Herzl envisioned already had an Arab minister who declares that the Jews “dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them?” He goes on to declare that though the Jew “prays in a different house to the God who is above us all, our houses of worship stand side by side, and I always believe that our prayers... mingle somewhere up above, and then continue on their way together until they appear before our Father.”

Furthermore, a political party in Herzl’s “New Society” that is determined to disenfranchise anyone not Jewish is described scathingly by Herzl, who sees to it that any attempt at asserting narrow-minded Jewish ascendancy is roundly defeated by the electorate.

Rabin, for his part, spent most of his years at war with those who refused to endorse Herzl’s dream. But when he believed its realization might finally be within our grasp, he was brave enough to embrace his lifelong enemy. He was assassinated by one too cowardly to do so. Had he been a character in Herzl’s fantasy, things might have turned out differently. But that is now up to us, which brings me to a third thing I wish to say to you.

ALLOW ME to tell you that your president is naïve, dangerously so. He misreads the Arabs. He is where I was until Camp David 2000, when Yasser Arafat rejected prime minister Ehud Barak’s far-reaching proposal that could have brought about a two-state solution almost overnight. Until that point the truth hadn’t sunk in: It was more important for this terrorist playing statesman not to be remembered by history as the Arab leader who legitimized the existence of a Jewish state than to be celebrated as the hero who had given birth to a Palestinian one.

This is all but incomprehensible to the Western mind, but there isn’t going to be any progress toward peace in the Middle East until this fact is internalized by the White House. Everything else is commentary. Barack Obama has too much faith in the other side. He’s putting too much pressure on us. Explain this to your president. Help him merit the Nobel Peace Prize he has already been awarded. You, who had the privilege of being the first to implement the new protocol calling for visiting dignitaries to acknowledge the founding father of the Zionist movement, and who reciprocated by acknowledging the grandeur of the Zionist dream, are uniquely capable of doing so, especially as he who came after you refused to follow in your footsteps and, donning a keffiyeh, veered instead to the grave of our nemesis.

In sum, Mr. Vice President, though we may never realize Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state that has no need for an army, we must never abandon our dedication to Rabin’s quest. That is precisely what the provocative declaration deriding your efforts was intended to have us do. It was motivated by the same xenophobic, shortsighted obtuseness that ended his life.

Our only answer can be to keep dreaming, resolute in our commitment to one another, to the cause of peace and to the course of negotiations, marching forward together arm-in-arm, inspired by the legacy of Herzl’s idealism and Rabin’s courage.

The writer is a member of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives, and chairman of the Herzl Center. [email protected]

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