On a day dedicated to celebrating Israel’s 62nd birthday, some visitors to the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany couldn’t help but think about what has been depicted as the widest rift in years between the United States and the Jewish state.
The annual Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) commemoration drew about 1,000 people for a day of celebrating bonds with Israel (see sidebar).
But in conversations with a reporter, some attendees couldn’t disguise their discomfort with the direction of Mideast diplomacy.
“I’m very disappointed in the current administration for alienating Israel,” said Jean Corman of Westfield. Whether she was considering U.S. anger over Israeli construction in east Jerusalem or Israeli distrust of the Obama administration’s push for peace talks, Corman was fully on Israel’s side.
“All of Jerusalem belongs to Israel,” she said. “Right now, Israel has every right to build wherever it wants in Jerusalem.” Her position regarding building settlements in the West Bank was similar.
For others, nonnegotiable emotional support for the State of Israel came with mixed feelings about specific policies — like building in east Jerusalem or the West Bank.
Johanna Jacob of Montclair was among the few interviewed who didn’t support Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, and was not distressed about the United States’ voicing its opposition.
“I guess because I don’t believe they should build more in east Jerusalem, I’m in favor of voicing disagreement with the concept. I’m okay with it,” she said.
Rich Herbert of Morristown disagreed. “I don’t think it’s any of the United States’ business what the Israelis do” in east Jerusalem, he said.
Still, he was sympathetic to the idea that if it wants to effect change, the United States must at least be perceived as neutral.
“The U.S. is perceived as very much on the Israelis’ side and therefore it’s difficult to be considered an honest broker, and therefore, the United States feels compelled to put pressure on the Israelis not to” build in those areas, said Herbert.
None of those interviewed felt Israel has a clear partner in any peace process. Said Herbert: “The U.S. is having to push a Palestinian state to show it’s a fair broker, but who’s going to be the leader of the state? There is no democratic leadership there.”
Corman excoriated the United States for pushing Israel so hard on peace talks.
“I think an important part of any peace process is to have the two parties who are involved sit face to face and not have a third party involved,” she said. “But since a third party is involved, it ought to have the same expectations on the Arab side as on the Israeli side. And the way I perceive it now, everything that is being pushed is that Israel should give, give, give. That’s not the way you make peace. You don’t start a peace process with preconditions. You have the two parties involved — the two enemies, so to speak — sit face to face.”
Asked about their thoughts on the “daylight” that has grown between the United States and Israel, there was little agreement. Few liked what they saw, but some weren’t even sure it represented a real shift.
For David Percely of Netcong, the lack of a united front has as much to do with posturing as anything else.
“I don’t know if there’s been a great change up front in the relationship,” he said. “I’m sure behind closed doors it’s probably very tight, and I don’t think there’s been a real step away from that…. The public rhetoric is important, don’t get me wrong, but you have to understand there is posturing going on.”
He added, “The key is for the media to get below the outside rhetoric and know what’s being said behind closed doors.”
Jacob said, in fact, that she liked that the two countries are willing to air their differences.
“I think it’s a good thing there’s acknowledgement of a divided idea and that there might be need for a little bit more compromise on everyone’s side in order to come to a solution,” she said. “When a united front is presented, it is kind of a black and white situation — it’s presented as a black-and-white situation, and it’s not.”
As far as who Israel’s peace partner might be, she suggested that it’s up to the parties involved. “If Hamas is an issue, let the Palestinians, let the Arab world figure it out,” she said.
Percely put the current rift in historical perspective.
“I can remember large disagreements going back to ’80s when the Reagan administration was talking about sending AWACS to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Are there certain things that, policy-wise, are better kept off the front pages? Certainly. Am I happy with all the decisions of our government? No — but when are you?” In the end, he said, both countries will recognize the bottom line: “that the common ground is far greater than the differences. It always has been, it always will be, and that’s not going to change.”