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Barak is Stretching His Mandate
By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

For many years it was an accepted consensus among American Jews that our responsibility as a community called on us to support the democratically elected government of Israel, whatever party was in power, on critical matters. This position was based on grounds of principle – that no matter how dear Israel was to us, it was the people living there who had the sole right to make their life-and-death decisions and we should respect that right. And it was based on pragmatism – that only such an approach had a reasonable chance to keep American Jews united and to maintain our ability to have significant political impact on members of Congress and whatever administration held power.

This perspective clearly held sway well into the 1980s and served the interests of Israel, America, and American Jews.

Late in the 1980s, at that time with a Likud government in power, and in the early ‘90s with a Labor Party in power, significant parts of the community began to drift away from this consensus approach. The consequences of this going-one’s-own-way approach have been evident: more divisions, less ability to speak with one voice and present a united community to influence those with decision-making responsibility in the U.S.; and far more partisan interpretations with Israeli political figures, with each Israeli party appealing to its partisans in the U.S.

And yet, despite the erosion of the principle, it has not been abandoned and in our view continues to be the only sensible way for American Jews, as a community, to function. Indeed, for us at ADL, and I believe other centrist American Jewish organizations, this continues to be our guiding principle.

It is this context that I would like to address the current situation where Israel has resumed negotiations with the Palestinians.

There are those who adhere to the non-partisan approach who are now saying that things are different in this instance because the Barak government is negotiating the future of Jerusalem. It is said that Jerusalem is not an issue solely for Israelis but of the Jewish people as a whole; therefore we must have our say and, some argue, stand up against the giving away of parts of the city and the Temple Mount.

These are serious points and not to be lightly dismissed. Jerusalem is different. In the final analysis, however, all those who have argued for criticizing different Israeli governments’ decisions have argued on the basis of some strong emotional or moral necessity. The position of the left in urging American Jews to speak out against Likud’s expansion of settlements and opposition to concessions in the territories was that morality dictated that Israel no longer control the lives of others and that it must give peace a chance.

The simple fact remains that once we pick issues, even the most delicate, such as Jerusalem, as a basis of intervention against Israel, there will be no end to it. The result will be no community at all.

There is, however, a reason for even those who have been the strongest advocates of the non-partisan approach to be concerned about what is taking place right now. And that relates not to any particular substantive position but rather to the very concept of leaving the decision to the democratically elected government of Israel.

What we have today is a combination of two factors coming together, which leave us extremely uncomfortable. The current administration of Ehud Barak is probably the weakest and the most under challenge of any government of Israel; not only does it have the support of maybe 30 members of the Knesset, but it clearly would have fallen from office by a vote of the Knesset had not Barak himself first called for new Knesset elections and then shifted to a snap election for Prime Minister alone.

This reality of a government that has been rejected together with the fact that it is engaging in the most sensitive and historic negotiations in the history the State, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of making such decisions in this interim period; legitimacy not in narrow legislative terms, but in moral and historic terms.

It seems to us that if Mr. Barak would win the election on February 6 with the public knowing where he stands, he then would have every right to have American Jews stand with him on even the toughest decisions about Jerusalem, refugees and territory.

At this time, where it is most uncertain where in fact the people of Israel stand, we think the prudent and responsible decision by the prime minister would be to step back, to continue to insist that the violence must stop, and to appeal to the Israeli people to support him in his vision, as Ariel Sharon will do likewise.

This is not an abandonment of our basic approach. It is rather an effort to give it further credibility for the future.

Let the people of Israel speak and then let us march on together.

This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week on January 5, 2001.

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