Today's summit meeting between US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas coincides with the circulation of a petition initiated by the Israeli Peace NGO Forum and signed by many Israeli public figures, academics and peace activists. Addressed to pro-peace Jewish organizations in America, the letter requests that the progressive pro-Israel pro-peace groups in North America make their voices heard in support of Obama's policies aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.
My colleague Dr. Gershon Baskin made an impassioned plea in his Jerusalem Post column last week for the Israeli public to wake up and reinvigorate the vanished pro-peace lobby. But it is not only the domestic lobby which needs to get its act together. Our progressive pro-peace friends abroad also need to work on influencing their respective governments, and the US administration in particular, to exert real pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to implement difficult compromises.
If Israeli and Palestinian leaders have proved one thing, it is that left to their own devices they are totally unable to reach a solution, and that it requires a strong but fair-minded honest broker acting as a third party. Obama has shown that he, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, is prepared to take on that role.
IF WE are to believe the electoral data, some 70 percent of the American Jewish community voted for Obama in the presidential elections last November. They did not buy into the malicious slander disseminated by some lobbyists that "Hussein" (sic) Obama would automatically do a U-turn on all issues relating to Israel and the Jewish community. They came to the correct conclusion that Obama, like all previous presidents, would remain a strong strategic ally of the Jewish State, concerned for its long-term security and well being but, equally recognizing that without a strong move toward further concessions, any form of peace could never be achieved.
Bush may have been a strong strategic ally but he did Israel a disfavor by blindly agreeing to almost everything ever proposed to him by Sharon and Olmert. Obama's greater approval rating in some parts of the Middle East grants him the power to exert pressure where necessary, if only because he has a greater chance of being accepted as an honest broker by both sides.
For that to happen, Obama needs to hear words of support from the influential Jewish community in the US. For too long, the progressive, liberal, pro-peace lobby outside Israel has played second fiddle to the establishment representatives, most notably AIPAC, which have taken it upon themselves to speak in the name of Israel, as though they were the only bodies that know what is good for the country.
It is at this juncture that the pro-peace lobby in the US has an important role to play. It has to show the president that the majority of American Jews support his attempts at peacemaking, and that the vociferous voices that oppose his tougher stance with the Israeli government do not represent the majority. Its belief in a solution based on two states for two people is a practical one, not just a slogan to be uttered by Israeli leaders in an attempt to please the international community. Progressive supporters of Israel adopted a two-state position long before the slogan was taken up by politicians such as Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni.
The Obama administration made some headway in recognizing the importance of this alternative pro-Israel lobby, recently inviting some of their representatives to a White House discussion, while excluding some of the more intransigent right-of -center lobby groups which have traditionally been invited.
AND YET, despite the window of opportunity that has presented itself for progressive Jewish organizations in the US, they have largely remained silent. They have the ear of the new American administration. They must not go the way of the Israeli peace movement and tone down their rhetoric because they mistakenly think the administration will carry out the job on their behalf. Israel's peace movement always made this mistake whenever a Labor government was in power. Rather than continue to exert pressure precisely when such pressure would have met with a friendly response, they folded their banners and went home to wait the signing of a peace agreement which never materialized.
Equally, it is time for Israeli governments and embassies throughout the world to work with the pro-peace lobbies instead of ignoring them. It is time to correct the falsity, often promoted by the official community lobbies and their representatives, that the pro-peace lobbies critical of the occupation and Israeli policies in the West Bank are somehow less concerned or less supportive of Israel than those who would follow blindly. They implicitly lump them together with those who would boycott or delegitimize Israel, rather than recognize them for the allies they are. Organizations such as the Friends of Peace Now, New Israel Fund, J-Street, the Israel Policy Forum, to name but a few, want to see a strong, vibrant Israel negotiate its way through this troublesome century.
Just as Baskin's call to the domestic peace constituency to wake up is critical, so too must our friends and allies in the American (and European) Jewish communities seize this opportunity. They must not remain silent. They must not let themselves be humbled into submission by an organized community which attempts to portray them negatively. Now is the time for them show their support of Israel by coming together, supporting President Obama and his Middle East envoy, and demonstrating to Israeli governments that there is an alternative way forward.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.