Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2009, pages 50-51

Arab-American Activism

Path to Peace in Israel/Palestine

  • (L to r) Congresswoman Donna Edwards, Said Naffa and Jeremy Ben-Ami. (Staff photo M. Alrabadi).

A LIVELY PANEL discussion at the ADC convention on June 14 focused on the path to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Panelists discussed how the war on Gaza affected the status of Israeli-American relations, and the urgent need for humanitarian relief to flow into Gaza. Questioners voiced their concerns about how a right-wing Israeli government and a divided Palestinian government can negotiate peace.

Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), who represents portions of Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties and serves on the nonpartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, visited Gaza after Operation Cast Lead. Sworn in as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2008, Edwards described her trip to Gaza as “a profound experience” in which she saw the fear and devastation of the region.

“There were so many children who are babies—under 15 years old,” she recalled, noting that the younger generation has seen too much violence. “We have an obligation to those young people and it is perhaps the most important obligation that we have here and around the world,” Edwards said. “We’re not meeting that obligation successfully.”

In Gaza, Edwards encountered a young man whose brother had just named his child “Obama,” and another who was equally proud that he was engaged in building Qassam rockets. A third younger boy said he just wanted to be able to go to school. Every young person is making choices about how to live their lives in Gaza. “This right here, this is the example of what we will have if we’re not fully engaged in peace,” she emphasized.

Describing the devastation in Gaza as “unbelievable,” Edwards recalled meeting a widow with five children whose home was destroyed. The widow had sent her children to live elsewhere, but she was camping in the rubble, protecting the debris, afraid to leave until her home was rebuilt. Edwards stressed that we must figure out a way to get construction material into Gaza to repair the thousands of homes that were destroyed or damaged.

The African-American congresswoman said she was shocked by the separation between Palestinians and Israelis, especially the separate roadways designated for Palestinians and Jews. Her family came from North Carolina, she explained, and her mother drank from separate water fountains designated for African Americans. Just as segregation in America finally ended, Edwards pointed out, the separation between the Israelis and Palestinians is “unsustainable.”

Edwards said that members of Congress and other policymakers should not create hasty resolutions that undermine the president’s ability to govern or direct foreign policy. Instead they should educate themselves and investigate diverse points of view. She closed her remarks by urging listeners to work for peace and stability in the region.

Next to speak was J Street executive director and co-founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, who spent 25 years working in government, politics and communications, both in the U.S. and Israel. Ben-Ami served as President Bill Clinton’s deputy domestic policy adviser, as well as policy director on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. He also served as communications director for the New Israel Fund. Ben-Ami’s father was born in Tel Aviv, and much of his family lives in Israel.

Ben-Ami began his remarks by explaining that those who long for peace must seize the opportunity now, before it’s too late. He believes in the concept of Israel, he said, but as someone born and raised in the U.S. he is a deep believer in equality, justice and human rights, which are fundamental tenents of both the United States and Judaism. He said he also deeply believes in the need for a state and a home for the Palestinian people. Ben-Ami said there is only one path to peace, and that is to find a formula for two states living side by side equally.

He stated that he shares these values with a large segment of the Jewish community, but for too long these voices have been drowned out by the “loudmouths” coming from the right who tend to dominate the public discussion. J Street provides a forum and political space to allow those other voices to be heard.

According to Ben-Ami, domestic American politics constitute the greatest roadblock to peace. The U.S. hasn’t played an active positive role in making peace because Congress and Washington policymakers believe that the political costs of pursuing peace are too high. J Street hopes to change that belief and bring Jewish support to leaders who work for peace.

The final panelist was Israeli Knesset member Said Naffa. Raised in Beit Jann (Upper Galilee), Naffa refused to serve in the Israeli army—which is compulsory for members of the Arab Druze community to which he belongs—and was jailed for an extended period of time. He went on to attend Tel-Aviv University Law School. More pessimistic than his fellow panelists, Naffa said that peace would not be possible in the near future. The only path to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace, he said, is ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. He went on to say that there is a wide distance between the Israeli and Arab points of view. In order to achieve peace, he said, three things must happen:

  1. End the Israeli occupation in all Arab lands, and return to the borders of June 1967.
  2. Recognize the refugees’ right of return according to U.N. resolutions.
  3. Recognize that Israel has the right to exist with peace and security.

Israel makes a lot of excuses to postpone peace talks, Naffa said, including raising the Iranian issue. But the real obstacle to peace is Israel’s attitude, he said. Israel knows the international community cannot tolerate this attitude forever, therefore it declares again and again its desire to negotiate peace.

Naffa described secret agreements which he said are being hammered out between Israel and Syria, according to which Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders within the next 10 to 15 years and farmlands and factories in the Golan Heights will remain Israeli-owned. Water issues will be regulated in accordance with international laws, he said, and security will be established

Naffa concluded by stressing the role of the U.S. in the peace process, saying, ”Israel knows that they can ignore the whole world’s stand, but not the U.S.”

Meriana Alrabadi

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