Molad - the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy

24.06.2013 analysis by Elisheva Goldberg
Kerry with Minister Livni and American Jewish leaders, June 2013
Kerry with Minister Livni and American Jewish leaders, June 2013    

American Jewish Leadership & the API

Were a future Israeli government to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative, it would likely enjoy broad American Jewish support

American Jewry is not likley to take a firm stance on a response to the Arab Peace Initiative without the blessing of Jerusalem. Yet among a variety of American Jewish communal leaders surveyed there was an across-the-board understanding that the API is a powerful signal that the Arab world is ready to by talk and might desire peace. Should a future Israeli government choose to back the API, that government will likely find that it enjoys the broad backing of the American Jewish community.


The Arab Peace Initiative (API) has long been sitting on the back burner of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ratified first in 2002 at the Arab League Summit in Beirut, it was offered during the heat of the Second Intifada. Since then it has been re-ratified multiple times, most recently at the 12th Islamic Summit Conference in Cairo in March of 2013.1 Today, as a combined result of renewed interest by American Secretary of State John Kerry and a desire on the part of Arab governments to form coalitions of moderates against radical elements (among them Iran), and alleviate pressure on the Arab street, the API has made its way back into the headlines, becoming a front runner among options that will move peace forward.

The Israeli government has been dismissive of the Arab Peace Initiative since its inception. It has avoided any formal response to the API, and has noticeably managed to keep the API outside political discourse. Partly as a result of the Initiative’s initial poor timing and partly due to its distorted representation in the media, the Israeli public is conveniently oblivious to the API. According to recent polling, despite its 11-year existence, 73.5% of Hebrew-speaking Israelis have never heard of the API, or, if they had, were only “slightly knowledgeable” on the subject.2

For the American Jewish establishment, the conversation surrounding the API has often, but not always, reflected this semi-official Israeli incredulity. The goal of this paper is to take temperature on the API among American Jewish leaders by surveying their responses to the Arab Peace Initiative. It should be stated that Molad’s stance on the Arab Peace Initiative is that it should be adopted as a cornerstone of the Israeli left’s comprehensive policy platform.

The American Jewish Committee & the API

American Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum on June 3rd, 2013. He spoke of his deep connections to Judaism and Israel—from his brother Cam, acting Secretary of Commerce, who converted to Judaism some 30 year ago, to the first time he climbed Masada and yelled “Am Yisrael Chai!”3 He mentioned the Arab Spring and Iran, Palestinian efforts and frustrations, how much “peace pays”, and then he told the AJC what he and the Obama administration thinks is the next step: taking the Arab Peace Initiative seriously. He said the following:

The Arab League came here to Washington, and they’ve just shown that they are ready to take steps forward, because they reaffirmed the Arab Peace Initiative, but they did so differently than ever before. They added that it will have land swaps for the first time.4

Although the Arab League signatories to the API have long known that there would be land-swaps in any final dealindeed, such swaps in many ways were built into the deal when it was first ratified in 20025—the recent Arab League presentation of a “modified” API enabled Kerry to make the above statements, in the hopes that demonstrating Arab willingness for peace might open a door with the influential global Jewish advocacy group.6 One of the AJC’s goals is to keep “Israel is secure and at peace, and its rightful place in the community of nations is assured,” a goal they work towards in both the American op-ed pages and the halls of Congress.7 Their latest move has been to condemn Jewish Home Minister Naftali Bennett’s statements against a two state solution (saying such a solution had reached a “dead end”),8 the AJC’s first criticism of Israel since March 2011.9

And while the AJC is commendably willing to argue on behalf of a two state solution,10 something that has long been in the Washington consensus and remains a part of the current Israeli coalition’s conversation, it did so just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu circumvented Bennett’s statements11 and Yair Lapid made some of his own.12 In the AJC statement, Director David Harris boldly calls Bennett’s comments “stunningly shortsighted”,13 with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the union for Reform Judaism (URJ) making similar proclamations.14 Yet neither the AJC nor the ADL or the URJ are likely to take a firm stance on the Arab Peace Initiative; in fact, the AJC has been consistently skeptical of the document.15 When asked for its perspective on the Initiative, the AJC released a prepared statement to Molad that read, “If the revised API plan offers the possibility of a comprehensive peace agreement, then clearly it is worth exploring further.” The statement further announced that the API “offers some encouragement for the prospect of achieving Israeli-Arab peace” as well as holds potential prospects for regional peace that “could make a significant contribution now by establishing meaningful contacts with Israel, as U.S. President Obama has requested. That could begin to fundamentally change the environment.”

Most organizations that make up the American Jewish establishment declined to comment on the record, a fact that likely reflects the Jewish establishment’s inability to deal with advancements in the Arab-Israeli conflict without the endorsement by the Israeli government that goes beyond a basic two-state model. In its most recent briefing document that mentions the Arab Peace Initiative, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) takes a wholly immobile stance, demonstrating its wariness and distrust of the Arab world by placing the burden of intransigence (and delegitimization of Israel) squarely on the shoulders of the Arab states standing behind the API.16 When asked, the ADL referred Molad to its website for its statements on the “peace process”. Yet the website’s latest searchable statements on the API date from 2010, and have to do with anti-Semitism in Arab media.17 The Conference of American Jewish Presidents, despite persistent calls from Molad, was unavailable for comment at the time of this writing. The AJC’s tepid response made it the only organization of its kind willing to offer a positive, if hesitant, stance on the API.18

Typical Ambiguity: American Jewish Leaders & the API

A variety of American Jewish communal leaders were surveyed informally for this paper, most speaking off the record. There was an across-the-board understanding that the API is a powerful signal that the Arab world is ready to by talk and might, in fact, desire peace. But these leaders will often avoid discussing the specifics of the Initiative publically for three main reasons: first, because the government of Israel has thus far failed to respond to the API,19 second, out of concern for their constituencies, which tend to be both relatively uninformed and deeply divided about on-the-ground Israeli policy, and third, because these leaders care deeply about their institutional financial stability, which could be harmed by political controversy.

Former editor-in-chief and current editor-at-large for TheJewish Daily Forward and API advocate J.J. Goldberg recently put it this way: “American Jews take their cues on Israeli security from Israel’s elected government,” but the trouble is, he continues, “For all American Jews’ concern for Israel’s welfare and security, the actual substance of Israeli security doctrine is virtually unknown in this country [U.S.]…and when the administrations reach out to American constituencies concerned with Israel—that would be us Jews—they end up confronting people who’ve never heard the basics of Israeli defense doctrine.” Goldberg was referring to the ignorance of American Jewry on both the existence of the API and the fact that the majority of the living ex-heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and IDF have come out in favor of it, making it a part of what he calls “Israeli defense doctrine”. In a phone call with Molad, Goldberg argued that American Jews, left in the dark, are being used by the Israeli government as a “blunt weapon” in Congress.

Others argue that the main reason for the American Jewish leadership’s avoidance of subjects related to Israel’s peace process, and more specifically the API, comes from its need to cordon off political conversations for the sake of fundraising. Afraid of being taken for doves on Israel, the “peace” conversation is abandoned to the far left. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute North America told Molad that “the narrative of Palestinian intransigence is so deeply rooted in the American Jewish conversation that the Initiative is either viewed as unreliable or unreflective; a kind of pipe dream.” Personally, he says, the loss of a serious peace conversation among the leadership is pretty devastating…it’s hard to amount to a serious conversation about peace without being called naïve.” Echoing Goldberg, the real challenge for American Jews, Kurtzer says, is that “the organized Jewish community still takes its lead from Netanyahu and the Israeli government,” as do lobbies. So “when hundreds of rabbis go to AIPAC and there’s no mention of the API, you’re not going to see it in the conversation.”

It’s something of a vicious cycle: the fact that American Jewish institutions take either tentative stances or none at all means that American Jews cannot turn to their trusted institutional bodies when it comes to Initiatives like the API. Jeffrey R. Solomon, a widely recognized expert in philanthropy and president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies who previously served as the COO of the UJA Federation in New York, spoke to Molad on the record.20 He argued that while the API never “fit into the Prime Minister’s scenario at the time…it was dismissed without even acknowledging what a profound act it was.” But moreover, Solomon said, American Jews are not “fully aware of it”, which makes it, in more ways than one, “the greatest missed opportunity of 2002”.

Other top Jewish community officials told Molad that the API is “a very flexible document” and “a good thing—certainly helpful as a path to a comprehensive peace.” Many leaders in the American Jewish community expand this sentiment. One well-known rabbi, author and scholar of Jewish ethics said,

I think it’s significant. I think the fact that it’s been repeated again and again coupled with the fact that when I look at the demographics in Israel time is not…on Israel’s side…there seems to be an openness in this [the API]—in the early years there was an insistence on the full right of return and also a complete return of territories. And they’ve modified both.

Similar to the AJC response, which discussed how “[a] few substantive steps would be helpful to flesh out the API one-page document and contribute to creating a climate of greater possibility and trust,” there is a sense that the API’s structure and language have a certain flexibility. It can be said broadly that there is a pervasive sentiment among American Jewish communal leaders that openness is built-in to the Arab Peace Initiative and that it is a positive development.  And yet they cannot speak on the record for fear of the inevitable reaction.

The Israel Policy Forum Letter

Some weeks ago, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) sent a letter signed by one hundred prominent American Jews to Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to “concrete confidence building steps” towards two states, and the reaction to this mild letter is demonstrative of why American Jewish leaders often choose silence over action when it comes to Israeli politics. The IPF, a twenty-year-old American-Jewish taskforce that calls itself “centrist and pragmatic”21 has a mission to “promote Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state by advancing a diplomatic resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict,”22 sentiments the Netanyahu letter reflected.

Among the signatories were the powerful philanthropic names of Charles Bronfman, Lester Crown, Stanley Gold, Warner Eisenberg, Bruce Levenson, and others. Policy wonks and relative hawks like Tom Dine of AIPAC and Dov Zakheim, Mitt Romney’s Middle East advisor, signed on. And there was a list of Jewish professional leaders as long as the floor: former chairman of the Jewish Agency Richard Pearlstone, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, Campaign Chair of the UJA Federation of New York Marcia Riklis, etc.

Although the letter to Netanyahu makes no explicit statement about the Arab Peace Initiative, it included language that called on the Prime Minister to “work closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”23 Despite the language’s similarity to that used by Netanyahu himself in his May 2011 speech to Congress in which he “recognize[d] that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish national homeland” and that such peace required “painful compromises to achieve this historic peace,”24 the letter faced angry reactions from the pugnacious Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI)25 (and the Jewish community in Russia26 which in turn triggered a response from Deputy Foreign Minister and “whole Land of Israel” advocate Ze’ev Elkin (Likud)27).The ECI response was severe. The organization sent a follow-up letter to Netanyahu expressing how “puzzled” it was that the 100 signatories to the letter (calling them “small group of American Jews”) “believe it appropriate to demand ‘painful territorial sacrifices’ of Israelis, when those issuing the demand will not experience the pain, or be compelled to sacrifice anything, should their advice prove foolish.”28

Many leaders of the American Jewish community express that it is this kind of internal pressure that makes them hesitant to sign on to letters like this one from IPF. In some ways it is understandable. If this mild letter faced such immediate and heated blowback despite its temperate language and credibly right-wing signatories, it is little wonder that the American Jewish battle on Israeli policy often goes unfought; the Arab Peace Initiative is only the latest casualty of its enforced silence.

American Rabbis & the API

There can be no doubt that in the limited conversation about the Arab Peace Initiative, there is a certain amount of breakdown along what can nominally be termed American “party lines”. And it is understandable, perhaps, that American Jewish leaders who run Federations or other social service organizations prefer to keep mum on Israeli politics given their constant anxiety around fundraising. In theory, other communal leaders, like synagogue rabbis, might be a bit more open up such subjects. The trouble is, say these rabbis, their synagogues are much like other American Jewish institutions, and are equally overwhelmed by internal politics, diverse constituencies, and the ever-present specter of fundraising. They, too, remain reluctant to engage a daunting political conversation about something like the Arab Peace Initiative without clear indicators that such a policy will almost certainly work or gain a stamp of approval by what they see as credible authorities.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, named most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek in 2011, and not typically hawkish on most issues, is a good example. Wolpe writes for the right-leaning Jewish Journal29 among other outlets,30 and said in an email that, “as a principle” he believes, “proposals should be taken seriously and discussed.” But when it came to the API he was cautious: “At the same time, right now, with the instability in the Arab world, I can understand Israel’s reluctance to take seriously the possibility that tomorrow’s government will honor today’s agreement.” Not unlike the AJC, Wolpe expressed apprehension about how reciprocal a deal would be, although by implication he suggested he would be willing to follow the lead of the Israeli government.

Rabbi Rolando Matalon of the popular B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side earlier this year faced backlash from members of his community after he and two other rabbis sent out a community email celebrating Palestinian membership to the U.N. The rabbis wrote another email in which they “regretted the tone” of the earlier letter, though not the core message.31 When asked about his position on the API, Matalon told Molad that while he’s “obviously extremely supportive” of the API, the document is a kind of nonentityin American Jewish communal discourse: “If your question is whether this has a chance with the American Jewish public…I think it’s a far reach…there’s no talk whatsoever in the American Jewish community about this.” Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen agreed. There is “no resonance” for the API in the American Jewish community, “no one’s talking about it. And if they were it would spit down the usual lines.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the union of Reform Judaism (URJ) fell somewhere on the AJC line—a firm notion that Israel should respond coupled with an assertion that the Arab states could do more. “I do welcome the API,” he said, “but I can't say that I see it as THE key to progress.” Rabbi David Saperstein, legal council of the URJ’s Reform Action Center, also sent Molad the following statement:

At a time when the stagnation of the peace process has put enormous strain on the prospects for the two state solution so vital to Israel’s long term security and wellbeing as a Jewish and democratic state, every opening to move the peace process forward should be explored—albeit with clear vision and open eyes. The reaffirmation and reshaping of the API to address some of Israel' s legitimate security needs, is just such an approach that must be explored, particularly at a time when the U.S. is seeking to break out of the current deadlock. 

The API brings to the table: parties throughout the region, an encouraging insight to views of those affected by the Arab Spring, an affirmation of Israel’s rights as a nation, a commitment to live in peace, a suggestion (through its recent shift embracing land swaps) that the Arab world is willing to engage in a process of shaping a position that incorporates Israel’s security needs. It is in the interest of all who support Israel to encourage exploring this, among other approaches, and to assess whether it is just political posturing or a path to making real progress towards peace.


It is clear that American Jewry will not take a firm stance on the Arab Peace Initiative without the blessing of Jerusalem. But should any future Israeli government push the API forward, the above evidence provides good reason to expect that it will enjoy significant American Jewish support. 

In 2002, when the Arab League first introduced the Arab Peace Initiative, World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement that, “Despite all obstacles that may still be in the way, King Abdullah’s initiative is a laudable step forward. We hope that other religious and political leaders throughout the world will be encouraged to join.”32 This statement rings hopeful still today. In an interview with Molad, Leon Wieseltier, thirty-year literary critic at The New Republic, public intellectual, and recent winner of the million-dollar Israeli Dan David Prize, said the following of the API:

If the question is if Israel should have a serious look at the API, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. It represents a strategic shift for the Arabs who proposed it. Its broad principles are ones that anybody who believes in territorial compromise for peace can accept, though the details are more troublesome—and the details are important.  Israelis must explore such possibilities, because the status quo is (this truism is also true) unsustainable and a one-state solution would mean only Greater Palestine. But it will be explored only an Israeli government that is sincerely interested in compromise and peace, and there is no such sincere interest on the part of this Israel government. I don’t mean to say that the API is electrifying, in the way, say, of Sadat journey to Jerusalem—I’m not jumping up and down about it—but it does represent a change in the historical Arab position and it does embody principles that Israel can share and support. I believe that every Israeli government has a responsibility to explore anything that can lead to a reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, because in the long (and even the medium) run there is no more pressing problem facing Israel. Netanyahu has presided over a complete collapse of diplomatic imagination. The Netanyahu approach to such the problems is to do nothing about them until they become so extreme that they can be treated not as diplomatic but as military problems. And if the Israeli government were to express interest in the Arab peace plan, then the American Jewish community would support it. It is not AIPAC that stands in the way of peace; it is the political leadership of the Palestinians and the Israelis. 

There can be little doubt that Wieseltier is right: the American Jewish community, perhaps to a fault, will follow the lead of the Israeli leadership. He is right, too, that waiting for the day when a Netanyahu government will announce its willingness to seriously consider the API is to tempt the fates. Israel’s current government is deeply unlikely to generate any serious response to the Initiative. In fact, the last official position from the Israeli government came from Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) on June 14, 2013 when he called the Arab League’s initiative a mere “spin” in a speech to the Washington Institute. American Jewry will continue to justify this stance as long as it remains Israeli government dogma.

If the key is not currently to be found in the Israeli government, we might instead turn to the numbers. A recent poll, conducted by an Israeli polling firm on behalf of the Israeli Peace Initiative,33 indicates that some 69% of Israelis would support the Arab Peace Initiative should Netanyahu adopt it and reach a final status agreement with Arab states.34 A Brookings Institution poll last November showed that, when reminded of the fundamentals of the Arab Peace Initiative, 52% of Jewish Israeli respondents said that the government should either “accept the offer as the basis for negotiations (39%) or “accept the offer as proposed (13%).35 The question of whether or not there exists what veteran journalist Akiva Eldar calls “a mandate from Israel’s public” on this issue is clear.36 What this paper shows is that another, parallel mandate can easily be formed in the United States. Should a future Israeli government choose to back the API, as former head of the Shabak and current Yesh Atid MK Yaakov Peri recently did when he called it “vital”,37 that government will likely find that it enjoys the broad support of the American Jewish community—this time perhaps on the record.


1. For the summing-up statement issued at the 12th Islamic Summit Conference, see

2. Akiva Eldar. “Most Israelis Back Arab Peace Initiative”05.27.2013, available at 

3. For Kerry’s June 3 speech, see

4. Ibid. 

5. Henry Siegman, “What the Arabs propose, and what they do not,” International Herald Tribune, 09.04.2007.

6. Steven Lee Myers and Jodi Rudoren, “Kerry Welcomes Arab Plan for Israeli-Palestinian Talks,” The New York Times, 04.30.2013, available at; for a good example of AJC Executive Director David Harris’s perspective on the conflict see “Why History Matters: the 1967 Six-Day War” published in both the Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post in June, 2012,; for an example of the AJC’s advocacy work, see “Letters to the House and Senate Supporting a Letter to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan Asking him to Retract his Comments about Zionism,” available here:

7. For AJC’s Guiding Principles, see

8. Ravid, Barak. “Idea of a two-state solution has reached a ‘dead end,’ Bennett says,” Haaretz, 06.17.2013, available at

9. Zonszein, Meirav. “How Often Does the AJC Condemn Israeli Officials?” The Daily Beast: Open Zion, 06.18.2013, available at

10. Cohen, Roger. “Why American Jews Matter,” The New York Times, 06.20.2013, available at

11. “Palestinian statehood at ‘dead end’: Israeli minister,” Reuters, 06.17.2013, available at

12. “Lally Weymouth interviews Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid,” The Washington Post, 06.18.2013, available at

13. “AJC: Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett’s Unwelcome Comments”, AJC, 06.17.2013, available at; Abraham Foxman of the ADL also condemned Bennett’s statements. Esensten, Andrew. “American Jewish leaders: Netanyahu should disown ‘irresponsible’ statements against two-state solution,” Haaretz, 06.19.2013, available at

14. Dana Harman and Andrew Esensten, “American Jewish leaders: Netanyahu should disown ‘irrisponsible’ statements against two-state solution,” Haaretz, 06.19.2013, available at

15. For AJC’s previous statements on the API see and

16. AIPAC briefing document:
17. “Arab Media Review: Anti-Semitism and Other Trends”, Anti-Defamation League, January-June 2010, available at; For another example see

18. “Kerry’s Call Ignored” The Jewish Daily Forward, 06.15.2013, available at


19. Goldberg, Elisheva. “Why Bibi Won’t Really ‘Give Peace a Chance’,” The Daily Beast: Open Zion, 06.05.2013, available at

20. For Jeffrey Solomon’s short biography, see


21. For the full letter from the IPF, see

22. See “About Israel Policy Forum”,

23. Ibid., IPF Letter

24. PM Netanyahu’s 2011 speech can be found at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. See,

25. For the ECI letter, see

26. “Russian Jews urge Netanyahu to ignore U.S. Jews’ call for ceding land,” JTA, 09.04.2013, available at

27. “Deputy foreign minister tells US Jews not to pressure Netanyahu,” Israel Hayom, 06.13.2013, available at

28. Ibid., ECI response letter 


29. Wople, David. “Wolpe vs. Beinart”, Jewish Journal, 02.13.2012, available at

30. Wolpe, David. “The Hate That Does Not Die”, Huffington Post, 08.10.2012, available at

31. Berger, Joseph. “Rabbis Apologize for Tone of E-Mail on U.N. Vote,” The New York Times, 12.06.2012, available at

32. For the full statement by the WJC see

33. Beauchamp, Zack. “POLL: Israelis Overwhelmingly Back Arab Peace Initiative,” 05.28.2013, available at

34. Ibid., Eldar

35. Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull. “Israeli Public Opinion after the November 2012 Gaza War,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, 11.30.2013, available at

36. Ibid., Eldar.

37. “Perry Criticizes Yaalon for Dismissing ‘Arab Peace Initiative,” Arutz Sheva, 06.15.2013, available at