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5th Anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accords

Coalition of Mainstream Jewish Organizations marks this critical anniversary with a mass rally at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.

September 13, 1998.

Keynote Address by Rabbi David Saperstein

My friends, consider the extraordinary array of extraordinary people from whom we've heard this afternoon. Think of it. A leading general of the Israel Security services, and the widow of one of Israel's most honored military heroes and statesmen; marvelous artists from two nations and two generations; a devoted friend of Israel who served there as America's ambassador and has now been entrusted with responsibility for America's foreign policy throughout the Middle East, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents, the head of a respected national Jewish women's organization, and one of the nation's most distinguished conservative rabbis.

And all of these good people have come here, as have you—representing a remarkable coalition of mainstream religious, secular, Zionist and an array of our most prominent women's organizations—all here for one reason: to advance the cause of peace. And with one hope: that somehow, the new spirit all of us felt five years ago this day can be regenerated, can dispel the current gloom.

I was honored to receive this invitation, albeit interrupting a wondrous sabbatical in Israel, to be with you here today. And I wish, oh how I wish, that I would be able to bring you good news, encouraging news, of a nation still whole-heartedly devoted to the active pursuit of peace. But the heavy truth is that for all my intimacy with Israel's problems, I was not prepared for the fatigue that so obviously now afflicts Israeli society. The hopes that soared so high just 1800 days ago lie in shambles, replaced by a growing fear that new bitterness and new hopelessness, a new and truly unbearable cycle of violence, is our future. From the headiness of watching Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shake hands and pledge an end to war in the White House Rose Garden, to the horror of Rabin's assassination scarcely two years later. From the promise of openings between Palestinians and Jews to the horrors of continued terrorism against Jews—every time I take my children on the bus or to Mahane Yehuda, I think of what Israeli parents must feel daily. The tragedy of too much violence on both sides. From the highs of watching the peace process move forward to the lows of seeing it stagnate and teeter on the edge of collapse

But I am here with you today, in this magnificent sanctuary, in this season of promise, not just to review, yet again, what is; but to speak of what can yet be. For ours is a people of immense resilience, and if today the mood is grim, we remain, still and forever, prisoners of hope. So often in our past, there was reason for despair. So often in the past, we rejected despair in favor of hope. And so often in the past our grandest hopes have, in fact, become reality. So often Theodore Herzel's vision— im tirtzu ein zo agada, if you will it, it is no dream—has been realized.

For out of the setbacks, confusion, and contradictions, our love of peace and our commitment to Israel's security call on us to gather today to reaffirm, with unstinting commitment and renewed determination, Yitzhak Rabin's belief that Oslo represents the best chance for peace for the People of Israel; and to reaffirm that peace is indispensable to Israel's security, values, and economic and social interests.

We must acknowledge that there are some—not many, but surely they are vocal!—who question the propriety of our being here today. They say that American Jews have no standing to offer views on the peace process, that ours is only to provide support in the United States for the government of Israel. But that narrow view fundamentally misunderstands the symbiotic relationship and complex responsibility between the American Jewish community and the people, state, and government of Israel. Living as we do in two nations, we are nevertheless one people; We are am Israel. If kol Yisrael arevin zeh lazeh means anything, it means that Israel's destiny is the destiny of the Jewish people.

Only Israel can ultimately decide its policy since its citizens live and die by those decisions. But all Jews must ensure that those decisions are enriched by the perspectives and insights of all who cherish Israel's well-being. To do less would be to turn our backs to our responsibilities. For Israeli and Diaspora Jewry are indeed interdependent, responsible for one another, and partners in the shaping of Jewish destiny.

It is in that spirit, that we recommit ourselves at this gathering to what we see as the basic truths of Oslo: peace means security; peace means economic and social prosperity; and peace requires continued, unfailing commitment from all involved, including our nation and including our Jewish community.

First, Peace Means Security

As lovers of the people and the nation of Israel, American Jewry is abidingly committed to their security.

As Yossi Genosar did so compellingly earlier this afternoon, Yitzhak Rabin forcefully laid out the logic of Oslo in security terms many times, detailing how every alternative to Oslo, every alternative to peace, was fraught with far more peril for Israel's security and society than Oslo itself.

"What choice does Israel have?" he would challenge us. To evict the Palestinians from their own land, would be nothing less than an abhorrent form of ethnic cleansing, irreconcilable with the lessons of Jewish history and the values of the Jewish tradition. To maintain the status quo i.e. military rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip indefinitely, would only guarantee generations of bloodshed, sacrificing young men to a deteriorating and increasingly futile military situation, and eroding Israel's security even as it would erode the moral quality of Israel's character.

Prime Minister Rabin was not alone in this view and its logic is equally or even more evident today. The most decorated hero in Israel's history, Ehud Barak; the current Minister of Defense in the Likud-led Government, Yitzhak Mordechai; the current and the immediate past Army chief of staffs—all hold a variant of the same conclusions.

And they all know one other urgent thing: Israel can bargain best from a position of strength, taking advantage of a unique moment in history to negotiate an historic peace favorable to both Israel and the Palestinians. In a region where Israel faces ever-growing arsenals, longer-range missiles and unconventional weapons, one percent of land here, another there, should not cloud the issue. Israel will never be stronger against its potential enemies than it is now. What risks for peace, normalization, and cooperation in its region Israel must take—and risks are inevitable—let them be taken from a maximum position of strength. What myriad benefits Israel can derive from peace, it can best achieve now.

Oslonever guaranteed peace—it only guaranteed the opportunity for peace, if wise and courageous leaders could lead their nations through the inevitable pitfalls and roadblocks that surely lay ahead on the winding, twisting path. Oslo was the manifestation of Abba Eban's sardonic but insightful assurance that nations and leaders will always do the wise thing—once they have exhausted all other possibilities.

When Yitzhak Rabin died, he bequeathed to every Jew the legacy of the promise of peace. We gather today to offer our determination to re-sharpen the vision with which Yitzhak Rabin entrusted us and to do everything we can to complete the process he so wisely began.

Second, Peace Means Social and Economic Prosperity

As active members and leaders of a broad array of American Jewish institutions and organizations that have long dedicated so much energy and so many resources both directly to Israel as well as by maintaining the special U.S.-Israel relationship, we affirm that Oslo is indispensable for Israel's social, economic and moral well-being. Prime Minister Rabin was driven in part by the recognition as well that Israel's economic strength and environmental integrity, its social balance and its moral character would forever be distorted by its isolation from its neighbors and from the global community. Israel's vital needs, he believed, could only be addressed cooperatively with its neighbors.

History, of course, showed that he was right. During the period following Oslo, Israel sustained its most intense period of economic growth: unemployment fell, new markets opened to it across the globe, boycotts ended, diplomatic ties expanded, and Israel could to begin to refocus its attention to the many pressing social issues it faces domestically. As Oslo has become increasingly bogged down, Israel's economy has stagnated, its social fabric has frayed, tensions between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel have increased, respect for the military has eroded, unemployment in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank is growing alarmingly, foreign investment has fallen sharply, Israel's isolation on the world scene has once again increased, the water crisis in the Palestinian areas has intensified—all these are exacerbating tensions and breeding levels of frustration and despair that are so harmful to the sense of optimism and trust that the movement towards peace initially engendered—and so vital towards its continuation.

We gather as well to reaffirm our recognition that the peace process will only work if the quality of life improves for all the parties involved. American political leadership on the world scene and American public and private investment in Israel, the Palestinian area , and the surrounding nations are all indispensable to fulfilling Oslo's promise.

Third, Peace Requires Continued U.S. Involvement

As Americans, actively involved in American life and in American politics across the political spectrum, we express our abiding appreciation for the unique role that the U.S. has played and must continue to play. The Sinai accords of '74, Camp David in '78, Madrid in '91, the follow-up agreements to Oslo: since the 6 Day War, there has never been a sustained breakthrough that has not been due in part to the forceful role of the United States in bringing the parties together or in generating creative proposals to bridge the gaps, and in persistently urging sensible compromise. And in every one of these cases, the promise of American military and economic support has allowed Israel to feel more confident in taking risks for peace.

Lately, the administration has been accused of "pressuring" Israel. But what some call "pressure" is nothing but the active involvement of U.S. mediators that has been requested by almost every Israeli government including that of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Paradoxically, the estrangement between the Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis, and the dramatic erosion of trust, has made an assertive U.S. role more indispensable than ever. When the atmosphere was different, when the cooperation, communication, and sense of common interest between the parties was clearer, the U.S. played a much more passive role. Today, challenging circumstances call on it to take on more assertive and creative efforts to bridge the differences and bring the parties back to a constructive agenda. To do anything less would be an abandonment of American responsibility to Israel, to the Palestinians, to the peace process, and to America's own security, economic, and political interests.

We are blessed that such public servants as Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller are leading these efforts. Their commitment to a just peace and to preserving the security of all parties is unsurpassed, as are their talents for mediation.

We gather here today to reaffirm what polls in recent months have dramatized. 80% of American Jews support the Clinton Administration's effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinians negotiations; 83% of American Jews believe that it is important that the U.S. suggest its own ideas to bridge the gap between the two parties. We speak for them today, in applauding the vigorous efforts of our government and in urging all of Israel's friends in the American public and on Capitol Hill to support the American government's indispensable and constructive role at this critical moment and to cease any political posturing that might impede or distract America in this task.

Finally, Peace Requires Continued, Unfailing Commitment From All

In this season of renewal, we stand committed that this nation shall not give in to peace fatigue. The problems, international and internal, that might sap its energy and its attention cannot, must not, and will not lead to an American withdrawal.

There have been major achievements in the past year and Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves credit as does the American government in pushing the Palestinian Authority to act to address a number of Israel's valid and urgent concerns. More important than whittling down the Palestinian request for 30% of the land to be returned, the new agreements require real reciprocity for Israel concessions.

It establishes new mechanisms to see that the promised steps are carried out: Identifying the Palestinian police; beginning the process of disarmament of illegal weapons; a public condemnation by Chairman Arafat of incitement to violence against Israel and Israelis, with a monitoring mechanism to respond to future such incidents; enhanced cooperation against terrorism, a new trilateral commission to deal with security issues; and a security committee to deal with terrorism and what will be done with those engaged in such activities. In the face of American urging, the Palestinians have already taken steps in this direction. Defense Minister Mordechai has commended the Palestinian Authority for cracking down on some terrorist activity.

As Carmi Gillon, the former director of Mossad, has pointed out the current agreement is vital in giving "Israel and the Palestinian Authority a strong weapon in the battle against the violent extremists of Hamas." Madeleine Albright has wisely observed: Forging peace and fighting terrorism are two halves of the same struggle. We cannot succeed in one if we do not prevail in both."

But most of these achievements were made comparatively early in the current round of negotiations. Subsequent delays were not on these issues but on the political controversy in Israel around the 11 v. 13% of land to be returned.

We gather today to urge all the parties to stay the course. Let neither Chairman Arafat nor Prime Minister Netanyahu have any doubt—all those in the Israel, the U.S., and the Palestinian autonomous areas who are committed to a realistic peace process want the current agreement finalized as quickly as possible. But the signing of the interim agreement alone, cannot restore the lost vision. Only if Mr. Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu stand up to the extremists in their governments and societies; only if they move center stage to reaffirm the logic and vision of the peace process and regalvanize the support of their people—and then act accordingly in implementing the letter and the spirit of what is on paper—will the final status negotiations have a real chance to succeed.

If they do so, we pledge to stand with them. We will redouble our efforts to ensure that America not give in to peace fatigue. We will reinvigorate American efforts at leadership in a world regime of non-conventional arms control. We will seek to stimulate yet more American investment in the region. And we will not rest in our quest to ensure that Israel receives the continued military assistance that it so vitally needs in its precarious region of the world.

The partners to peace face a choice of what anniversary celebration will be appropriate. This Yom Kippur War marks the 25th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War that took the lives of 6000 young Israelis and so many thousands of Arabs. It is a poignant reminder of where our failure may lead. We choose, instead, another focus today. On this 5th Anniversary, on the eve of the New Year, we gather together to proclaim the Jewish tradition's vision of humanity, asserting that we are not prisoners of a bitter and unremitting past. Rather we can be the shapers of a better and more hopeful future.

On Rosh Hashonah, Jews around the world will read anew the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. Our tradition teaches us that of the two horns on the ram that was sacrificed in Isaac's stead, that one was heard at the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the other will be heard ushering in the Messianic time of peace and justice for all God's children. As Jews listen to the sound of the shofar this year, may all of us be inspired to go forth with confidence, as we move from here today, for the cause of peace is an awesome agenda that can smash challenges and transcend limitations; may all of us rededicate ourselves to ensure that, in place of the sacrifice of this generation's children, we will so act as to bring closer the day when the shrill blast of the second ram's horn will welcome in, for all of Abraham's children—Jew and Moslem, Israeli and Arab alike—a New Year, a never-ending year of peace and justice for Israel and for all the world, and these children will bless us saying: see—this our parents did for us.



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