AJC Mideast tour finds cause for optimism

AJC Mideast tour finds cause for optimism

After a visit to the Middle East and Western Europe, a top official of the American Jewish Committee said he sees a new era of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the West Bank.

Jason Isaacson told board members of the organization’s Metro NJ Region board that there is “very definitely” security cooperation between the two sides.

“There is a need for a political horizon of some kind…for the Palestinian people and very definitely for the security of the people of Israel,” he said Feb. 6, speaking at a private home in Short Hills.

Isaacson, AJC’s director of government and international affairs, led an AJC diplomatic mission to Jordan, Israel, Germany, and France from Jan. 23 to Feb. 6.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, they met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

“He was very impressive and quite progressive,” said Isaacson. “If he were leading the Palestinian people toward peace with Israel, I would feel pretty confident there would be a practical solution recognizing the realities that face both Palestinians and Israelis — the need for compromise to see the other person’s point of view.”

However, Isaacson lamented, Fayyad “is not the president. He is not the political leadership, regrettably.”

The group found another optimistic sign in a visit to Rawabi, a $1 billion suburban city that Palestinian builders and Qatari financiers are developing outside Ramallah.

They learned the Israeli government has stopped blocking the delivery of construction equipment to the site, which is intended to include hotels, office buildings, a hospital, and homes for 40,000 people when it opens in 2014.

“Quietly, Israelis and Palestinians have resolved the issue because of the arrangement on security issues,” Isaacson said.

But he urged the two sides to increase such collaborations so they can “start bridging a gulf” and so that leaders on both sides “can start selling compromises to their people.”

Isaacson said he was encouraged by the group’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pledged to reinvigorate the peace process. “The people on the Israeli street don’t trust the Palestinians but they don’t want the status quo. It is sustainable for the time being, but it is not sustainable forever.”

Discussing President Barack Obama’s anticipated visits to Israel and the West Bank, Isaacson said, “This is not the time for a big bold American blueprint…. The climate is not there. This is a time to build incremental trust and help the Palestinians develop infrastructure for a state.”

Prior to visiting Israel, Isaacson and his entourage were in Amman for a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan.

Asked by audience members what would keep the country from succumbing to Islamic militancy in the wake of the Arab Spring, Isaacson replied, “Some sort of reform process. It is not going to be democracy. The king in his own way is moving toward reform. It is slow — and it is probably ultimately unsatisfying.

“I hope I am wrong about that,” he added. “I want the king to live a long life and to be a neighbor at peace with Israel.”

In Berlin and Paris, the AJC delegation referred often to a finding by the Bulgarian government that Lebanon-based Hizbullah was responsible for a bus bombing that killed five Israeli tourists last year in the resort town of Burgas.

“The AJC has joined the Obama administration in asking European Union members to designate Hizbullah as a terrorist organization,” Isaacson said. “But it is not so simple, because if you designate an organization as a terrorist organization, you cannot have contact with it.

“For European countries, particularly France, which has a history of contact with certain Lebanese political factions, it would take them out of a certain political game in which they very much have a stake. So it is important, for reasons of crippling their fund-raising, crippling their operations to designate Hizbullah — but there is resistance at a political level in Europe.”

In a phone conversation following the meeting, AJC NJ Metro president Amy Reisen Freundlich spoke to NJJN about her participation on the trip.

“I think economics are going to drive the peace process,” she said. “You do get the impression there are reasonable people on the West Bank who would work hard to make it a viable country.

“I returned home optimistic because of the sense I got, especially from the Palestinians we met. I am hoping because we have a new secretary of state and President Obama doesn’t have to run again — and Prime Minister Netanyahu did say his priority would be the peace process.”

In their meeting with Netanyahu, Freundlich said, the prime minister told the delegation, “‘The settlements are not an obstacle to peace because I am going to make sure they are not an obstacle to peace.’

“So I came away more hopeful than I thought I would have been. I think they are going to make some progress.”

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