Israel | National

Heeding Kerry’s peace call, Jewish groups rap Bennett’s two-state obit

L-R: Reps. Ed Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Pete Roskam at a meeting with Dani Dayan, a leader of Israel's settlers movement, in Washington, June 27, 2013. (House Republican Conference)
L-R: Reps. Ed Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Pete Roskam at a meeting with Dani Dayan, a leader of Israel’s settlers movement, in Washington, June 27, 2013. (House Republican Conference)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It’s almost boilerplate: The American Jewish community asks a foreign leader with whom it has cultivated a close relationship to kindly tell firebrands in the leader’s government to pipe down and fall in with an established policy that happens to be embraced by the U.S. government.

Greece? Romania? Hungary? Russia?

Try Israel.

In a rare rebuke of a sitting Israeli minister, three major centrist Jewish groups in recent weeks have criticized Naftali Bennett, the economics chief in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, for saying that the two-state solution is a “dead end.” Bennett also called on the government to annex the West Bank.

“Minister Naftali’s remarks, rejecting outright the vision of two states for two peoples, are stunningly shortsighted,” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said in a June 17 statement. “Since he is a member of the current Israeli coalition government, it is important that his view be repudiated by the country’s top leaders.”

Also repudiating Bennett, who heads the right-of-center Jewish Home party, were the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy groups, although the JCPA statement did not name him personally.

Typically loath to publicly criticize the Israeli government, centrist groups in recent years have been the targets of liberal critics who charge that they are, at best, lukewarm supporters of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But coming in the wake of an appeal to Jewish groups by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to press “leaders” to back the peace process, the latest statements suggest otherwise.

Dani Dayan, a leader of Israel's Yesha settlers council, makes a point at a meeting with Republican congressional leaders in Washington, June 27, 2013. (House Republican Conference)
Dani Dayan, a leader of Israel’s Yesha settlers council, makes a point at a meeting with Republican congressional leaders in Washington, June 27, 2013. (House Republican Conference)

Each of the groups that repudiated Bennett framed their statements in the context of Kerry’s bid to restart the peace process and come as Israeli settler leaders opposed to a two-state solution are making their case in Washington. Dani Dayan, a leader of the Yesha Council, the West Bank settlement umbrella body, met last week with top Republican lawmakers in Congress.

The initial reaction to Kerry’s appeal was hesitant, but in recent weeks a number of mainstream groups have warmly embraced it. Participants in a closed-door meeting June 26 of Jewish leaders and Democratic U.S. senators said that Michael Kassen, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “heartily” embraced Kerry’s initiative, albeit with a caveat: The main obstacle to peace, he reportedly said, is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A similar point was made by ADL National Director Abraham Foxman in a recent Op-Ed calling on Netanyahu to rein in Bennett and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who also has declared the two-state option dead.

“It would be good for Mr. Netanyahu to find as many occasions as possible to reinstate his commitment to a two-state solution, and make clear once again that it is he that wants to move forward through negotiations, while it is Mahmoud Abbas who is injecting rejections and is the true obstacle to peace,” Foxman wrote.

AIPAC, notably, declined an invitation to attend the meeting June 27 between Dayan and top Republicans, including Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the committee’s Middle East subcommittee; and Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.), the party’s chief deputy whip.

Instead, the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition led the Jewish contingent at the meeting. The ZOA has counter-rebuked the Jewish groups that criticized Bennett and Danon. Foxman, the ZOA said in a June 24 release, was “suppressing opposition to a Palestinian state.”

Ros-Lehtinen declined to comment, and Royce and Roskam did not return requests to do so. But an official in the office of the House Republican Conference, which organized the meeting, said the meeting did not constitute an endorsement of Dayan’s call to bury the two-state solution. The official said there was sympathy with Dayan’s view that Kerry’s mission was counterproductive and potentially harmful to U.S. interests.

There was interest as well in a proposal by Dayan that Congress hold a hearing on how Jewish settlement has improved the lives of Palestinians; Palestinians say the expansion of settlements and the security measures that protect settlers have seriously impeded and frustrated daily life in the West Bank.

“The discussion focused on the historic and strategic significance of Judea and Samaria, and on the current obstacles to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, such as Holocaust denial, hero worship of terrorists, and incitement to violence by the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority,” said an email from the House Republican Conference to Jewish groups in the capital. “We also discussed the positive ways in which Arabs and Jews currently coexist in Judea and Samaria, including the tremendous economic and jobs boost that Jewish settlements have brought to the area since 1967.”

Dayan in an interview in the House Republican Conference office immediately after the briefing said he was pleased with the reception.

“I was I must say even overwhelmed by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee” – Royce – “saying he reads all my articles,” Dayan said.