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2011 Leadership Mission to Israel
Date: December 12, 2011
To: JCPA Leadership

Conrad Giles, Chair

Rabbi Steve Gutow, President/CEO

Martin Raffel, Senior VP

RE:  2011 Leadership Mission to Israel

We just returned from participating in the JCPA Leadership Mission to Israel, an inspirational journey with 16 members of the JCPA family [list of participants below]. Special thanks to Israel Advocacy Initiative (IAI) Director Lynn Gefsky, who, together with Andy Katz from the JFNA missions department, helped plan and coordinate our itinerary.

 Dr. Conrad Giles with Israeli President Shimon Peres
The mission was as exciting as it was informative. We managed to pack an extraordinary number of meetings into a short four day period in Jerusalem last week, which concluded with a festive closing dinner at the home of Lois and Larry Frank.  Among the salient themes of our discussions were: the strategic threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program; implications of the revolutions taking place throughout the Arab world; the Palestinian issue; the assault on Israel's legitimacy; Israel's economy and last summer’s social protests; and Knesset legislation affecting Israel's minorities and freedom of speech.

One of the highlights of the trip was 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, he maintained, fundamentally will alter this perception.

Lynda and Conrad Giles with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad
Traveling to Ramallah to visit with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (third time in the last two years) was a meaningful experience for our delegation. 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.  Indeed, 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 cannot be successfully launched without the support and cooperation of the state of Israel.  

Ron Dermer, Senior Adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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, he 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 to Israel’s survival.

Leadership Mission Outside the Old City of Jerusalem
Not surprisingly, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons was a dominant issue in our discussions. Iran is universally regarded not only as the greatest strategic threat facing Israel today, but also a significant destabilizing factor throughout the region. Yehuda Yaacov, a specialist on Iran in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave the delegation an off-the-record briefing. He urged the JCPA leadership to keep this issue high on its agenda.  Following last month’s IAEA 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 United States Embassy in Tel Aviv, warned us that sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank could have the opposite effect by boosting oil prices and benefitting Iran financially, further feeding its nuclear capabilities. The Administration is working with key partners to tackle their concerns and move forward appropriately and aggressively on effective sanctions.

Another major item on the agenda was the assault on Israel's legitimacy. We shared with our Israeli interlocutors the work of the Israel Action Network, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the JCPA. At the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), we discussed with Director Avinoam Bar Yosef and Brigadier General Mike Herzog ways we could work together to stand up against anti-Israel initiatives, to anticipate and prepare for future challenges, and to actively promote a fair and balanced picture of the Middle East among key constituencies.  In addition, we held consultations on delegitimization with DJ Schneiweiss of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Shalom Lipner of the Prime Minister’s Office.   

While Israel’s search for peace and security remain a dominant concern, there is a growing debate on defining a Jewish state. Dr. Tal Becker, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, offered his perspective that, “A state that does not look at the decisions it takes through the prism of the Jewish values and aspirations it seeks to embody is, in some fundamental sense, not a Jewish state.” In Israel, we have the responsibility to be a Jewish state. When we feel that our survival is at stake, can we afford to create space for a conversation on what it means to be a state worthy of Jewish values? It’s not good enough to simply get a passing grade on issues affecting the health of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, especially in our treatment of minorities. Israel is not just a democracy for Jews.

Rabbi Gutow and Dr. Conrad Giles with Christian Leaders in Jerusalem

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, and we were heartened to hear that these incidents have been decreasing.    

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.

In Tel Aviv, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Lilith Restaurant whose employees are at risk youth being given an opportunity to learn a trade and build a valuable work ethic. At Tel Aviv University, we met with student leaders from this summer’s social 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 OECD 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.

Among our other interlocutors were MKs Tzipi Livni, Shlomo Mollah and Avishai Braverman; New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner; leading analyst and co-editor of BitterLemons Yossi Alpher; Professor Gil Troy and Yossi Klein-Halevi of the Hartman Institute; and our Israel-based colleagues Rebecca Caspi of the JFNA, Rabbi Ed Rettig of the American Jewish Committee, and Wendy Singer of AIPAC.    

In the coming days, we will be celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights. This mission experience will enhance our own “rededication” to supporting a secure Jewish and democratic Israel that will serve as a “light unto the nations.”

The mission participants were: Conrad and Lynda Giles, Detroit, Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA, Martin Raffel, JCPA, Lynn Gefsky, JCPA, Lois and Larry Frank, Atlanta, GA, Laurie and Jeff Gross, Bridgeport, CT, Carol Brick-Turin, Miami, FL, Steve Stone, Springfield, IL, Ira Youdavin, Santa Barbara, CA, Ken Rotman, Santa Barbara, CA, David Bohm, St. Louis, MO, Sandy Rosenberg, Baltimore, MD, and Barak Cohen, IAN Israel Desk Director.

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