Mitt Romney’s pessimistic take on Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects drew some headlines in the press but not much noise from centrist Jewish groups.
The revelation this week of Romney’s remarks, in which he suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved at present and that the best that could be done was to “kick the ball down the field,” was greeted quietly by centrist Jewish organizations. Only groups on the right and the left ends of the communal spectrum issued statements in response, respectively praising and strongly condemning Romney's comments.
But in interviews with JTA, some centrist Jewish communal leaders stressed that the pursuit of peace should not be postponed, although they were not inclined to criticize Romney.
“To let it fester is not in the best interests of Israel,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, adding that he believed the Republican candidate for president “meant well” in his remarks at a May 17 fund-raiser in Boca Raton, Fla.
Israel’s government “wants to pursue peace and they want to believe there is a partner,” Foxman said, citing the little noticed but successful ongoing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. “It's not in Israel's interest to kick it down the road, not only in terms of self-interest but in terms of its relationship to the civilized world.”
Without directly criticizing Romney, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Union of Reform Judaism’s new president, said that U.S. leadership required action in the short term, not just the long term.
“We need to do concrete things every day, not naively and not with sacrificing the safety and security of Israel -- although safety and security for Israel means two states,” Jacobs said. “Our tradition requires us to do difficult things in the world. There is no benefit to delaying.”
Jacobs said that even when peacemaking was stalled, there were incremental actions the parties could undertake.
“When it is not the right time, you can put things in place to move it to the right time,” he said.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee declined to comment on Romney's remarks.
Some have noted that the Republican nominee did not rule out the possibility of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in the future. The initial portions of Romney’s remarks that were released by Mother Jones magazine, which had obtained the secretly recorded video from the Florida fundraiser, were truncated. The full video was released shortly thereafter and included what could be seen as Romney’s vision of how the U.S. can foster the conditions for an eventual peace by being a resolute ally of Israel.
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, 'There's just no way,'" Romney said in the remarks as first released at the $50,000 a plate dinner.
"And so what you do is you say, 'You move things along the best way you can,'" Romney continued. "You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."
Left out of the original reporting was his conclusion to the thought: “So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wistful thinking.”
While opponents to a two-state solution within the Republican Party have grown louder, Romney is not considered to be among their ranks. Romney’s surrogates worked successfully to prevent language calling for two states from being pulled out of the Republican Party platform.
Daniel Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith International’s executive vice president, said that he understood Romney not to mean that he was abandoning peacemaking but that he was acknowledging that other crises had superseded its importance in the Middle East.
“Events have pushed the issue to the outside,” said Mariaschin, citing Iran’s acceleration of its nuclear program and the unrest in much of the Arab world, particularly Syria. He noted renewed Palestinian plans to push for statehood recognition at the United Nations that have frustrated the Obama administration as well as Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
“As long as the Palestinians are not fighting to get back into the circle” of peacemaking “the prospect for intensifying the process is not there right now,” Mariaschin said.
Romney's remarks on the peace process, however, were criticized by Democrats.
“This guy wants to be president of the United States?” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee, told JTA.
“There are problems between Jews and Muslims and this Mormon throws a Hail Mary?” said Ackerman, who is retiring this year and has excoriated all sides -- the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians -- for not seizing opportunities for peace.
In a series of interviews with media outlets, Dennis Ross, the former Middle East adviser to President Obama and the administration’s most frequent interlocutor with Israel, seemed to suggest that Romney’s remarks were not helpful.
"I'm a big believer in not creating a false set of expectations, but I'm also a believer in that if you think something is stuck, you come up with an approach and try to change the dynamic,” Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Huffington Post. “If you basically just say it's all hopeless, you just make hopelessness a self-fulfilling prophecy."
But a fellow veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller, struck a more sympathetic chord.
"To me, the idea that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement may not be possible is simply an acknowledgement of reality," Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told The Huffington Post. "In my view, the emperor has been seen to have no clothes on this issue for quite a number of years."
Miller said that he thought Romney, if elected, would tend toward the low end in the spectrum of U.S. engagement with the issue, "what I would call benign neglect" -- but that "even Romney would have to find some way of management."
While centrist Jewish groups have not issued statements in response to Romney’s remarks, groups on the left and right were not so reticent. Americans for Peace Now and J Street, which have pushed for aggressive U.S. action to advance a two-state solution, were strongly critical of Romney’s remarks.
“In dismissing the possibility of achieving peace and expressing readiness to simply sit back and wait for the conflict to resolve itself, Romney has articulated a view that is fundamentally anti-Israel,” APN’s president, Debra DeLee, said in a statement. “‘Pro-Israel’ means being committed to the achievement of peace for Israel, no matter how difficult it may be to achieve or how distant a solution may appear.”
She called on him to “repudiate” his remarks.
But the Zionist Organization of America said that it agreed with Romney’s premise.
“Governor Romney's remarks indicate that, were he to be elected president, he might be willing to do what President Obama and his predecessors, Republican and Democratic, have not done -- to act on the realities of the Palestinian situation and apply real, sustained pressure on the Palestinian Authority to change its ways,” the ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said in a statement.