Up Close And Personal
Detroit Jewish leaders head national delegation to Middle East.
Dr. Conrad Giles of Bloomfield Hills and his wife, Dr. Lynda Giles, led a 16-member delegation of American Jewish community leaders to Israel for meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, members and advisers of the Israeli government, academics, and religious and social leaders.
Giles, former president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, chairs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Washington-based public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community. The Dec. 4-8 meetings were held within the framework of the JCPA annual leadership mission to Israel.
“The incredible amount of information and analysis shared with our leadership will enable the JCPA to play a more effective role in shaping policy and strategy in the coming months,” Giles said.
“Our meetings with President Peres, Prime Minister Fayyad, who is the architect of the largely successful Palestinian state-building plan in the West Bank, officials in the Israeli prime minister’s office, members of Knesset and others elucidated the difficult road ahead for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Topics the JCPA delegation discussed included the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the progress of the Palestinians; the strategic security threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program; Israel’s economy and last summer’s social protests; and Knesset legislation affecting Israel’s minorities and freedom of speech.
The JCPA will hold its annual plenum in Detroit next May. Representatives from major Jewish agencies and leaders from 125 communities will convene to vote on policies reflecting American Jewish community consensus.
Herewith is a summary of Conrad and Lynda Giles’ JCPA Leadership Mission findings:
What was a special highlight of the journey?
Being welcomed into the beautiful home of Israeli President and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, who expressed the hope that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will commence soon. Volatility in the Arab world, he observed, makes reaching a final peace agreement that much more important.
Nothing is perfect, he asserted, and while you can’t change people, it is possible to change situations. Hasbara (public diplomacy) is a matter of perception. Israel is inevitably perceived as the occupier of the Palestinian people. Nothing other than peace, Peres maintained, fundamentally will alter this perception.
How did your visit with Prime Minister Fayyad go?
The prime minister, by all accounts including Israeli sources, has successfully built security and economic institutions that will help sustain a future independent Palestinian state. He expressed the view that the Palestinians, according to key international bodies, already are “state-ready.”
While acknowledging the challenges in forging a final peace agreement under current conditions, efforts that remain important both to Israel and the Palestinians, he stressed the need to continue and expand the state-building project.
As in previous meetings with the JCPA, Fayyad noted that, ultimately, a Palestinian state could not be successfully launched without the support and cooperation of the State of Israel.
How does Israel respond to Fayyad’s take?
Ron Dermer, senior adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, told us that while Israel has certain expectations or redlines with respect to its security needs, there are absolutely no preconditions for starting talks with the Palestinian leadership. All it seeks is a partner across the table that is not committed to its destruction.
Iran, through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, has taken advantage of Israel’s withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza. Israel’s courageous risks for peace, Dermer asserted, have only been met with violence and a buildup of weaponry on its borders. Israel knows that “three strikes and you’re out” — and it cannot risk Iran also seizing control of the West Bank. These conditions not only present challenges to Israel’s security, he stressed, but also to Israel’s survival.
Describe the talk on Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons?
Iran is universally regarded not only as the greatest strategic threat facing Israel today, but also a significant destabilizing factor throughout the region. Following last month’s International Atomic Energy Agency report confirming Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons capability, efforts to initiate tough sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank have become the focus to intensify the pressure on the regime in Tehran to end its illicit nuclear activities.
However, the Obama administration has expressed some concerns with this particular strategy. Matt Eussen, a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, warned us that sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank could have the opposite effect by boosting oil prices and benefiting Iran financially, further feeding its nuclear capabilities. The Obama administration is working with key partners to tackle the concerns and move forward appropriately and aggressively on effective sanctions.
What was the context of your visit with Christian leaders?
In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, the delegation engaged in a candid and thoughtful exchange with Christian leaders from many churches, which was hosted by the Latin Patriarch Archbishop Fuad Twal and facilitated by Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. We learned that receiving permits for housing projects in Jerusalem is a major challenge facing this community. In many cases, Christian families are outgrowing their homes and receiving permission from the Israeli government for this construction is difficult. They appealed to us for our help in communicating their concerns to the appropriate officials, and we committed our leadership to this cause.
In recent years, the JCPA has been deeply concerned by instances in which clerics and others wearing crosses have been spat upon in the Old City, apparently by Jewish students. We readily advocated for a more assertive response from Israeli government officials; we were heartened to hear that these incidents have been decreasing.
How are sides lining up on “threats” to Israel’s democracy?
It was important for our delegation to explore whether recent Knesset bills were endangering Israel’s democracy. Some individuals passionately defended the strength of Israel’s democracy, particularly Justice Minister Yakov Neeman. Others fiercely criticized these legislative initiatives, including Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer and Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute. They argued that these were attempts to silence criticism of the government.
What is your take-away on Israel’s social protests?
At Tel Aviv University, we met with student leaders from this summer’s protests as well as with Professor Dan Ben-David, who gave an analysis of social, employment and education trends that, if they continue, will pose major challenges in the years ahead. Israel’s cost of living, particularly housing, exceeds other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, wages for employees are far less and there has been a deterioration of public services, such as health and education.
This is the situation even though Israel has more people, more capital and more productivity. In essence, these circumstances drove the social justice protest movement this summer in Israel. Professor Ben-David fears that increasingly Israelis will emigrate if the gap between what they will receive abroad, as opposed to what they will get in Israel, continues to widen.
JCPA is the national coordinating/advisory network for 14 national and 125 local agencies in the field of Jewish community relations.
JN Contributing Editor Robert Sklar edited this Giles report, based on a lengthier overview presented to JCPA leadership.