When President Obama told me that Israeli-Palestinian peace was impossible

As many of us are aware President Obama stumbled in the beginning of his presidency in his relationship to Israel. His speech in Egypt left out the 3,000 year connection between the Jews to the land Israel. The pressure brought to bear on Israel was unprecedented so early in an American presidency. It was in this context that a group of Orthodox Jewish representatives were invited to meet with President Obama in 2012, with the recognition that his reelection was on the horizon.

As the Managing Director of the Orthodox Union at the time, I was invited to participate in this meeting. The conversation covered many topics and it was a generally pleasant interaction. As Israel was brought up and our fears were expressed, President Obama raised his hand and said that he understood our concerns. He said that pressuring Israel to make peace was not practical because he had found Prime Minister Abbas to be a weak leader and unable to make the concessions to make peace.
President Barack Obama is photographed with Orthodox Jewish rabbis in the Oval Office, June 5, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House. 

We were startled to hear President Obama stating the obvious as bluntly as he did. We left that day with a sense that the president understood the dilemma that the Israelis had in having no real partner for peace. Unfortunately, that blunt admission was to be short-lived.

Listening to US Secretary of State John Kerry today, one question was left unanswered. Who should Israel make peace with? The strongest leaders amongst the Palestinians seem to be those of Hamas, a terrorist organization, who aspire to destroy Israel. Even if partners could be found within the Palestinian Authority who would ensure that ISIS would not take over?

The world has watched while the US has stayed silent while over half a million Syrians have been butchered. The often quoted and misused point that if only there was peace in Israel, the Middle East would halt all conflict, is hopelessly naive. Does anyone realistically think that the Syrian conflict could end as the result of Israeli-Palestinian peace?

To listen to a speech from the US Secretary of State where 99% was spent attacking home building on the West Bank and 1% acknowledging ongoing terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians is not only unbalanced. It borders on Anti-Semitism. Even those that feel that construction should be stopped were appalled.

At Aish HaTorah, we work in “occupied territory” across from the Western Wall. Exactly one year ago, one of our Talmud teachers, Rabbi Reuven Biermacher father of seven children, was butchered by two terrorists wielding machetes. Was this because he refused to stop building in the territories? Was this because he oppressed Palestinians? This was simply because he was a defenseless Jew.

We Jews have heard from many people throughout the centuries that if only we acted this way or spoke another way we would be safe and protected. You will have to forgive us for following President Reagan’s advice, He stated in relation to dealing with the Russians that one must “trust, but verify.” Israel and Jews around the world are only willing to trust after they have verified that we can have true safety and security. That has not happened as of yet. In President Obama’s own words the leadership of the Palestinians is too weak to make peace. How can we trust them to keep us safe?

To be fair, President Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry have done many positive things for the State of Israel over the last eight and four years respectively. I absolutely do not believe that they have any malicious intention towards Israel or the Jews. Unfortunately, whether someone is naive or malicious, the end result is often the same.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Burg is the Director General - Mankal of Aish HaTorah. He previously served as the Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, as well as the Managing Director of the OU and International Director of NCSY. Rabbi Burg has his Masters in Medieval Jewish History and has studied at Harvard and Kellogg Business schools.
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