David Harris

Partners for peace

Despite differences, US and Israel have common goals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama at the White House. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama at the White House. (Associated Press)
By David Harris
May 26, 2011

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ONCE AGAIN, the Middle East is in the news. President Obama gave a much-anticipated speech on the region on May 19. A day later, the president met in the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Obama appeared before AIPAC to further explain his views, followed the next day by Netanyahu.

Much attention has focused on the differences that reportedly exist between the United States and Israel. Of course, every country has its national interests, and no two sets of national interests are completely identical, especially when applied to a region as complex and multi-faceted as the Middle East. But what is far more important is the convergent thinking between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on a number of key issues.

First, the recent meetings and speeches reveal once again US-Israeli agreement on the pressing threat posed by Iran. Both countries are warning that an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability would present a major threat to regional and global stability, and that all options must remain on the table to prevent such an outcome.

Second, both countries agree that the recent “reconciliation’’ agreement between Fatah and Hamas constitutes a major new problem. Hamas is not a partner for peace. It is a terrorist group, recognized as such by the United States and European Union. It is committed to the destruction of Israel and the extermination of the Jewish people, which is exactly what Hamas says in its charter. Thus, Washington and Jerusalem both believe that Palestinian Authority President Abbas will have to choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace talks with Israel. He cannot have it both ways.

Third, Obama and Netanyahu share the belief that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only come about through direct talks between the parties. It cannot result from a Palestinian campaign to avoid negotiations and instead seek a unilateral declaration of independence with UN General Assembly support. That would be a path to conflict, not coexistence.

Fourth, the United States and Israel are in full accord that the outcome of any peace process should be two states for two peoples — Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people, and a “non-militarized,’’ to use Obama’s language, Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians must understand, therefore, that the solution to their refugee question lies in the new state of Palestine, not Israel.

There were two refugee populations created by the Arab declaration of war against Israel in 1948 — Arabs caught in the war itself and Jews forced to leave their ancestral homes in Arab countries. Both populations were of roughly equal size. But there was one fundamental difference. Whereas the Jewish refugees were absorbed in Israel, the Palestinian refugees were deliberately kept in refugee camps for generations in neighboring Arab countries. Incidentally, no other refugee population in the world experienced the same cynical manipulation.

Fifth, both sides agree that the final border between Israel and Palestine must be negotiated, not unilaterally declared. Moreover, as Obama said on Sunday, to clarify concerns generated by his remarks three days earlier, the mutually agreed boundary will have to take into account realities on the ground, including demographic changes and Israel’s compelling security needs in a shrunken state. The so-called 1967 line was nothing more than the armistice line at the end of the fighting of the Arab-instigated war of 1948, whose goal was to destroy the embryonic state of Israel.

And sixth, in recent days in Washington, we have witnessed a reaffirmation of the enduring strength of the American-Israeli partnership. Those who focus on the inevitable disagreements miss the larger picture. The enthusiastic bipartisan reception accorded by Congress to Netanyahu also spoke volumes about the strength of the link.

This is a relationship built on shared democratic values, a common assessment of threats and dangers posed by radical state and non-state actors, and a desire to usher in a new Middle East built on a solid foundation of peace, democracy, and prosperity.

More than anything else, the deep ties that unite the United States and Israel, again on display in recent days, are what’s really newsworthy — and able to stand the test of time.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.