At least one goal was achieved in the panel discussion on Israel held at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield on Jan. 29: Despite deep differences, the exchange was totally civil, and there were even moments of agreement.
The other much-desired goal — to come up with some answers — failed, though not to anyone’s surprise. Toward the end, when a member of the audience stepped up to the microphone and asked, “What can be done to bring about peace?,” it brought a wave of laughter, along with shrugged shoulders and hands turned palm up.
Not that the four panelists were without suggestions. The title for the event was: “Peace Between Israel and the Palestinians: What Will It Take?” and, led by moderator Jonathan Knopf, panelists offered various steps. No one, however, suggested that those would be enough.
The event was the third public forum in the Temple Varied Voices series, an effort to promote civil discourse on Israel. It was cosponsored by the Israel Support Committee that draws its members from Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark.
About 125 people attended the event.
Representing the Left were retired attorney and longtime Jewish activist Larry Lerner of Warren and Rabbi Charles Kroloff of Westfield, rabbi emeritus of the host temple. Lerner is a past president of Meretz USA, and Kroloff is a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet.
Giving the view from the Right were Jared Silverman, an attorney and a columnist for this paper, and Conrad Nadell, a retired accountant and software entrepreneur from Scotch Plains. Nadell is a leader of the Israel Support Committee.
Knopf’s first question was about impediments to peace.
On the plus side, Lerner mentioned the agreement by Hamas not to commit acts of terrorism against Israel, although the organization was still refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. On the other hand, he said, Israel fuels support for Hamas by its expansion of settlements.
Kroloff described the settlements in disputed territory as “a lightning rod of tremendous power.” President Barack Obama has done more to support Israel than any other recent American leader, he said, and in return, even if reluctantly, Israel should make concessions on the settlements.
“The settlements are not the cause; they are the result of the conflict,” he said. He said Israel has made strides to prepare its people for peace, while the Palestinians foster hatred, demonizing Jews and glorifying terrorists.
Silverman agreed that the mindset of the Palestinians was the big issue. “The well is being poisoned” by those teaching children to hate Israel, he said.
All four agreed that both sides want secure borders, and that the separation barrier has reduced terrorist attacks from the West Bank. But, Nadell said, “Only peace will make borders secure.” He described the barrier as a “desperation measure.”
Kroloff suggested that for Israel, secure borders would require NATO troops along the Jordan Valley, a demilitarized Palestinian state, and a high-tech defense system. For the Palestinians, he said, it would take economic growth and “a different life. That is not entirely out of reach,” he said, crediting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Silverman said that Fayyad could never head a unity government “because Hamas objects to him.” He disagreed on the subject of international peacekeepers, saying United Nations troops have failed to avoid an arms build-up on the Lebanese border, and European Union troops are too “pro-Palestinian.”
Asked about the significance of the Arab Spring, Nadell and Silverman took a pessimistic view, pointing to the rise of Islamists in the various Arab counties undergoing uprisings from their populace. Turning to Syria and the likely change of government there, Silverman said, “Imagine if Israel had given up the Golan Heights.”
The other two were more sanguine. Lerner said, “Arab tyrants use Israel as a scapegoat for all their problems. As the tyrants are removed, things will change. There is a chance for peace.” But, he added, “time is not on Israel’s side. It is becoming a pariah around the world.”
Protests within Israel, Lerner said, have actually had a positive effect. They are entirely about economic problems, not the conflict, he pointed out, and that has brought about some rapprochement between Jewish and Arab Israelis.
On the other hand, Kroloff warned, the Jewish population is in dire danger of “fracturing,” unless the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, population can be engaged more productively in the work force and the army. With the current rate of population growth among the economically depressed haredi and Arab populations, long before 2050, Israel could find itself no longer a world-class economy or able to maintain its military forces, with world Jewry “feeling profoundly alienated” from the Jewish state.
Silverman didn’t dispute that view but was emphatic that an image of Jewish unity must be maintained within Israel and with the Diaspora. “What incentive is there to deal with a country that’s fracturing?” he asked.