On July 23rd, a "Dear Colleague" letter was written by Senators Evan Bayh (D,IN) and James Risch (R,ID) urging President Obama to press Arab nations to take dramatic steps to normalize relations with the people and the government of Israel. This letter, which has the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been circulated through the Senate since last Friday. While there certainly are many positive ideas in this letter, it appears to be one-sided. According to Americans For Peace Now's (APN), Lara Friedman:
The letter, which is the top item on the "Take Action" page on the AIPAC website, focuses exclusively on President Obama’s call for Arab states to take steps to normalize relations with Israel, making no mention of the president’s call for Israel to stop settlement activity (and implying that steps Israel has already taken - like removing some checkpoints and PM Netanyahu’s belated support for the two-state solution - are sufficient demonstration of Israel’s commitment to the peace process).
Due to this imbalance, APN has written to Senators urging them not to sign the letter until it has been changed to include the steps that President Obama has asked Israel to take.
The Bayh-Risch letter, available through the AIPAC Action Alert page:
Dear Mr. President:
We write in support of your efforts to encourage Arab states to normalize relations with the State of Israel. In your June 4th address to the Muslim world, you highlighted the key role that Arab states can play in furthering the peace process and called on them to openly recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Secretary Clinton underscored these remarks when she stated that Arab countries "have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region." We applaud these comments and agree with you and Secretary Clinton that Arab states must do more to end their isolation of Israel.
Over the past few months Israel has taken concrete measures to reaffirm its commitment to advancing the peace process. Notably, Prime Minister Netanyahu has publically expressed support for the two-state solution and called for the immediate resumption of peace negotiations. We have also been encouraged by Israeli efforts to improve the daily lives of Palestinians, through measures such as removing roadblocks, assisting with economic development in the West Bank, and supporting the training of professional Palestinian Authority security personnel. These actions have demonstrated that Israel is willing to back up its words with concrete actions, even in the face of continuing threats to its security.
We encourage Arab leaders to take similar tangible steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process. Such steps could include ending the Arab League boycott of Israel, meeting openly with Israeli officials, establishing open trade relations with Israel, issuing visas to Israeli citizens, and inviting Israelis to participate in academic and professional conferences and sporting events. We also believe that Arab states must immediately and permanently end official propaganda campaigns which demonize Israel and Jews.
Given these facts, we would like to understand what steps you are urging Arab states to take and what your expectations are from Arab states in the coming weeks and months. We also hope that you will continue to press Arab leaders to consider dramatic gestures toward Israel similar to those taken previously by brave leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Anwar El-Sadat of Egypt. Such gestures would send a powerful signal that Arab nations are committed to the peace process and could help usher in a new era of peace and security in the Middle East.
Excerpt from letter written by Lara Friedman, Director of Policy And Government Relations of Americans For Peace Now:
On its face, the letter seems to make a straightforward and reasonable demand for the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel. As strong supporters of Israel who believe that Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace are critical to the viability and prosperity of the state of Israel, we would like to see this happen, and see a day when Israelis and Arabs can travel freely throughout the region and enjoy normal, good relations.
The subtext of the letter, however, directly contradicts and undermines the efforts of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell to promote Middle East peace.
President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell are investing a huge amount of energy and political capital in trying to create a dynamic with Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states, asking all to take tangible steps that can create confidence in the peace process and help build momentum toward Middle East peace. This is a promising effort -- one that holds out real hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace and, along with it, real normalization of Arab-Israeli relations.
They are pressing Arab states to demonstrate good faith by taking a range of steps toward normalization of relations with Israel, in the context of meaningful steps taken by Israel toward peace. This is an effort that Congress should support.
They are pressing the Palestinians to improve and expand on the positive actions already taken on security, to act forcefully against incitement, and to refrain from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely. This is an effort that Congress should support.
With respect to Israel, as everyone knows, they are pressing on one main issue: for Israel to stop settlement activity. This position is consistent with longstanding US policy and with promises Israel has made, repeatedly, to past US administrations. It is also consistent with Israel’s own best interests: settlements represent an economic, political and security liability for Israel. Settlements also erode the confidence, even among Israel’s friends and supporters, that Israel is truly interested in peace, and make the eventual resolution of the conflict more difficult and more costly for Israel to carry out. This effort to get Israel to stop settlement activity is something Congress should also support.
The Bayh/Risch letter conspicuously ignores Israel’s continued refusal to stop settlement activity and its recent decision to "up the ante" by approving a highly controversial settlement project in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem - a project that has been on hold for more than 20 years.
Indeed, the Bayh/Risch letter never once even mentions the word "settlements."
President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell are right to be pressing Arab states to match positive Israeli steps with positive steps of their own, and it is right for Congress to echo this message. But this letter sends a different message altogether: that signers of the letter do not support President Obama in his efforts to achieve peace for Israel and bring security, stability, and normalcy to the region. It sends a message that signers consider settlements more important than peace.
We look forward with longing to the day when there is real peace and full normalization of relations between Israel and the entire Arab world. We strongly believe that the Obama Administration’s approach offers the best opportunity to achieve this goal.
We urge all Senators to support President Obama in his efforts, and to refrain from signing this unhelpful letter, unless and until it is amended to also reflect the real steps needed to achieve peace that President Obama has asked Israel to take.
Earlier today, James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute discussed his concerns with Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA):
James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, challenged the logic of the letter, saying it is Netanyahu’s pressing forward on expanding some settlements that has frustrated Arab willingness to make some of the gestures for which Bayh and Risch are calling.
A number of Arabs nations ready to step forward are now more reluctant in the wake of Netanyahu’s declaration last week that he will not block expanded Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, Zogby said.
Zogby said that the message from his organization to Arab governments is, "Even if this is something you are loath to do, it is not a question of supporting Benjamin Netanyahu, it is a question of supporting Barack Obama's initiative."
Additionally, Sue Swartz, Director Of Advocacy, and Deepa Domansky, Washington Liason and Advocacy Coordinator, of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom wrote this in an action alert sent to its members:
What is in the letter from Senators Bayh and Risch? Briefly, it rightly praises Israel’s recent actions, including the dismantling of roadblocks in the West Bank and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public support of a two-state solution. Further, it calls on Arab leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process by taking concrete actions such as ending the Arab League Boycott of Israel and refusing to allow propaganda campaigns that demonize Israel and Jews.
There is nothing wrong with calling on all parties in the Middle East – Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab States, and the international community – to step up to the plate. This is, in fact, President Obama’s approach. He has, for instance, already urged the Arab states to take the specific steps in the Bayh-Risch letter in exchange for Israeli concessions.
The problem with the Bayh-Risch letter is what is intentionally left out: the need for a complete Israeli settlement freeze to help move the peace process forward. What is left out is any mention of Israel’s recent approval of a controversial settlement project in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a project on hold for more than 20 years in compliance with Israel’s legal obligations.
Please call now and request that your Senator refrain from signing the letter if and until it is revised to reflect the wisdom of the Obama Administration’s approach – pressing for normalization of relations by Arab countries while simultaneously pressing Israel to move on a settlement freeze.
The authors of this Dear Colleague letter send a clear message to President Obama that they don’t agree with this balanced approach.
I urge readers to support President Obama's call for a balanced approach on Israeli settlements and normalization of relations by Arab nations. Please contact your Senator through the Capitol toll-free switchboard,(800)828-0498 or (877)762-8762, and ask them to hold off signing the Bayh-Risch letter until it reflects this idea. You could also e-mail them through the Senate website, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom link, or the Churces For Middle East Peace link.
h/t: Lara Friedman's Weekly Legislative Round-Up At APN--which I encourage all readers to subscribe to.
I wanted to include some information from earlier today regarding this letter from J Street and Churches For Middle East Peace
From Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street:
Late last week, Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Jim Risch (R-ID) circulated a letter regarding President Obama’s efforts to encourage Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.
J Street believes that, as the letter expresses, normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states is an important step toward "ushering in a new era of peace and security in the Middle East." We agree with those who say that all sides to the conflict must take steps now in the direction of peace and normalization if we are to seize this moment of opportunity for progress toward resolving the conflict. We also agree with those who believe it is unhelpful to place the onus for progress solely on one of the parties, and support the administration’s strategy of seeking compromises from all of the parties for the sake of peace.
As President Obama made clear both in his Cairo speech and at his meeting with Jewish American leaders, the Arab states, the Palestinians, and the Israelis all have important responsibilities to fulfill in order to achieve a two-state solution and a comprehensive regional peace. This includes Arab moves toward normalization with Israel, Palestinian steps to end incitement to violence, and an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
As Members of Congress consider whether to speak out publicly on the issue – as in the Bayh-Risch letter – we urge them to use language that makes clear the broad range of actors who have responsibilities to help resolve the conflict. It is important that such language include support for the long-standing US policy of a settlement halt so that serious negotiations can begin on a real resolution.
We urge Senators to support President Obama’s balanced approach and encourage all sides to meet their responsibilities by making the difficult compromises necessary for peace.
From Churches For Middle East Peace(CMEP) Action Alert:
Tell Your Senators NOT to Sign the Bayh-Risch Letter
Senators Should Not Derail the President's Policy for Bringing Arab-Israeli Peace
Senators Bayh (D-IN) and Risch (R-ID) are asking their colleagues to join them in signing a letter to President Obama that urges Arab states to make "dramatic gestures toward Israel" without mentioning any obligation of Israel to stop the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories. This old and unbalanced approach compromises a key element in negotiations and undercuts the President's efforts to get comprehensive talks started. Only policies of holding both sides accountable, as now pursued by the President, hold out hope for a lasting peace.
CMEP urges you to ask your Senators NOT to sign the Bayh-Risch letter, unless it is amended! Let your Senators know you support the President's efforts to take a balanced approach toward Israeli-Palestinian peace!
This week Special Middle East Envoy Mitchell is in Israel to seek an agreement on settlements, while Defense Secretary Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones are also there to build confidence and reassure Israel about firm U.S. commitment to its security. President Obama is determined to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a sustainable and lasting peace, but he needs your help!
Make your voice heard and tell your Senators that all parties must be held accountable! Let your Senators know that continued Israeli settlement expansion undermines the President's peace efforts!
The increasing professionalism and effectiveness of Palestinian security forces and the Israeli decision to remove some roadblocks and check points in the West Bank are positively changing conditions on the ground and inspiring hope that a secure Israel can one day live in peace next to a viable Palestinian state. Let's keep this valuable momentum going and urge Senators to support balanced initiatives that encourage all parties to take bold steps toward peace.
The deadline to sign this letter is Wednesday, August 5th. Contact your Senators ASAP to share your input on this important issue!