Giving the Diaspora a say

Jewish communities should be consultated on the negotiations between Israel and its neighbors.

Jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the most intractable issues facing Israel, its government and general public is the real nature of the relationship with the Diaspora. Is this a relationship of reciprocal, mutually benefitting and interdependent interests? Is it a vital relationship without which neither could realize their respective and most basic endeavors? Or alternatively, could each exist independently and follow its own narrow interests? These questions are challenging and touch upon the very nature of the linkage between State of Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora. One delicate yet vital component of this relationship that repeatedly threatens to cast a schism between the two, is the ongoing peace-negotiating process on issues of central concern to Judaism - specifically concerning the fate of Jerusalem and withdrawal from territory. During the few instances in which the negotiating process has shown some hope of progress, these heavily emotive issues inevitably arise. In 2005 in the context of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Orthodox Union of America went as far as to announce that it would no longer desist from expressing positions opposed to those of Israel's government when it believed this was called for. Later, prior to the Annapolis peace talks on November 27, 2007, Agudath Israel of America, at its national convention, passed a resolution stating that Israel should not surrender any part of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty and that America's government should not pressure it into doing so. It even dispatched officials to meet with high-ranking members of the Bush administration to press the case, claiming that "the issue of Jerusalem is one that is sui generis: It stands on its own. It is the heart of Eretz Yisrael." At the same time, a grouping of representatives from Orthodox Jewish and Christian organizations, including Agudath Israel, the National Council of Young Israel, Christians United for Israel, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Coordinating Council for Jerusalem, met with president George W. Bush's national security adviser and other senior White House officials and voiced their movements' opposition to future Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, demanding that American Jews should have a say in any discussion about dividing Jerusalem. The Orthodox Union issued an unequivocal statement that all the Jews in the world had a share in "the holy city of Jerusalem" and that its partition was a move the Israeli government should not agree to. The powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also reaffirmed its support for "a united Jerusalem as Israel's eternal, sovereign capital" - a statement that was later criticized by the leader of the US Reform movement, who stated that "The Jewish community in the US... mustn't tell the Israeli government not to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem." These statements were countered in no less an unequivocal manner by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claiming that "the government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel." The president of the World Jewish Congress even published an open letter to Prime Minister Olmert on January 3, 2008 stating that "Jerusalem has been both the capital of Israel and the capital of the entire Jewish people for 3,000 years. While recognizing Israel's inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state, it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision." CLEARLY, THE CHALLENGE here is the extent to which the government should take into consideration concerns and interests of Diaspora Jewry on negotiating issues considered to be central to Judaism and the Jewish world, and how this could be done in the most mutually beneficial and rewarding manner? A pertinent precedent might be Israel's recognition, in Article 9 of its Peace Treaty with Jordan (1994), that it "respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem" and promises the involvement of the Jordan in the permanent status negotiations on the Moslem holy shrines in Jerusalem. Does the Jewish Diaspora deserve any less? While there can logically be no justification for Diaspora intervention in strategic and tactical matters that are clearly, and for obvious reasons, at the sole security-discretion of the government of Israel and the IDF, there are nevertheless negotiating issues of such deep concern to world Jewry and other supporters abroad that merit a greater level of effective involvement by the Diaspora. Presently, apart from mostly random and often personal contacts between Diaspora representatives and Israel's leaders - whether the president, prime minister, Jewish Agency heads or other ministers - there appears to be no clear, permanent, formal, substantive and high level channel to direct and coordinate the contacts on vital negotiating issues. With any resumption of the peace process negotiations, this lack of a clear axis of contact will inevitable reawaken the potential schism and enhance the frustration and discontent. Some contact channels that presently exist, for different purposes, include: • a minister with secondary responsibility for Diaspora affairs; • the Jewish Agency, based on the 1954 covenant between the government and the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency, recognizing the latter as the representative of world Jewry vis-à-vis the government; • a junior-level adviser to the prime minister on Diaspora affairs; • a mid-level Diaspora Affairs Unit in the Foreign Ministry; and • a Diaspora affairs adviser in the President's Office. WITH A VIEW to provide an answer to the calls by Diaspora Jewry for greater influence and standing in regard to negotiating issues central to the Jewish people, this writer proposes the appointment of a special ambassador to the Jewish communities of the world - a senior-ranking government official, intimately familiar both with the negotiating issues and with Diaspora Jewry, with wide diplomatic experience and without any particular political identity. This person would have access both to the highest levels of government as well as to the Diaspora leadership, and would be the recognized, senior authority charged with maintaining ongoing and high-level relations between the Diaspora leadership and the government in all aspects relating to the negotiation process between Israel and its neighbors. The special ambassador would head up and coordinate the activities of the disparate bodies presently dealing with specific Diaspora elements, and consult with the Diaspora leadership and grassroots on the major subjects central to Jewish heritage and interests arising in negotiations. He or she will act as a go-between with the government, and vice versa, on these issues. Achieving such an aim will be complex. Coordinating several government bodies is no easy task, even for the best of ambassadors, as is trying to communicate with the many and varied Diaspora organizations claiming to speak in the name of the world Jewish community. But this is a challenge that would be well-worth facing, and the sooner the better. The writer was legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry and ambassador to Canada. Recently retired from government, he presently heads the international department in the law firm of Moshe, Gicelter & Co.