US Senate
US Senate Israel news photo

No fewer than 71 US Senators – including only six of the 13 Jewish ones – sent a letter to US President Barack Obama on Monday, asking him to press Arab states to recognize and normalize relations with Israel. The effort, led by Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), was promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The 71 signatories included the Senate leaders and whips of both parties, namely, Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

The letter states that Israel’s efforts toward peace are not being met with equal efforts by Arab states. A similar letter was sent by 226 House members of both parties last week to Saudi Arabia, calling on its leaders to deepen their commitment to peace with Israel.

Arab Op-Ed: What More Do You Want? We Allow Israel to Exist!

The Hill – a daily Washington paper that describes itself as a “nonpartisan, non-ideological daily paper for and about Congress” -  reported on the letter together with an editorial rebuttal by Dr. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz published in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times. The Hill quotes the editorial as “not[ing] that Arab nations offered a peace plan in 2002 that allowed Israel 78 percent of disputed land” – implying that all of pre-1967 Israel exists on “disputed land” and that the Arab peace plan was magnanimous in “allowing” Israel to exist in these borders.

Responding to the Senators’ call for “dramatic steps” from the Arab countries, Rubeiz writes that the above Arab peace plan in which the Arabs “allow” Israel to exist, was itself a “far reaching and dramatic offer.” The plan also calls for a “just solution” regarding Arab refugees and their millions of descendants, as well as the relinquishing of eastern Jerusalem for the capital of a Palestinian state; in return, the Arab states promise to normalize relations with Israel.  

The Senators’ letter quotes and supports comments by Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the effect that Arab states must do more to end their isolation of Israel.

Senators: Israel Did Much, What About the Arabs?

The letter to Obama lists the various “concrete measures” taken by Israel of late to “reaffirm its commitment to advancing the peace process.” The letter specifies in this regard Prime Minister Netanyahu’s publicly-expressed support for the “two-state solution” and his call for the immediate resumption of peace negotiations, as well as “Israeli efforts to improve the daily lives of Palestinians, through measures such as removing roadblocks, assisting with economic development in the West Bank, and supporting the training of professional Palestinian Authority security personnel... even in the face of continuing threats to its security.”

On the other hand, the Senators ask to “understand what steps you [President Obama] are urging Arab states to take… in the coming weeks and months.” Specifically, the writers suggest that the Arabs could end the Arab League boycott of Israel, meet openly with Israeli officials, establish open trade relations with Israel, issue visas to Israeli citizens, end official propaganda campaigns that demonize Israel and Jews, and more.

The Senatorial writers also “hope that you will continue to press Arab leaders to consider dramatic gestures toward Israel similar to those taken previously by brave leaders like King Hussein of Jordan and Anwar El-Sadat of Egypt.”

Notably, only six of the Senate’s 13 Jewish members signed the letter: Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The seven Jews who did not sign the letter asking for Arab peace gestures towards Israel were Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Peace Now Objects

The letter engendered controversy among Jewish American groups. Americans for Peace Now criticized it as putting “settlements before peace.”  In response, Richard Gordon, president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote as follows:

“What is important about the letter is what it contains, not what it does not. Every nation has the right to have its existence recognized by its fellow nations… How can a nation be at peace with nations that do not recognize it even exists? … The fact that the Bayh-Risch letter does not discuss the status of the settlements does not detract from its importance. The status of the settlements is a distinct and different discussion. It is secondary to the very simple and long overdue notion of Arab nations' recognizing Israel's legitimacy as a nation… The Arab world's refusal to recognize Israel has nothing to do with settlements. It dates back to the very founding of the State of Israel itself [and] predates the building of the first settlement.

“Except for Jordan and Egypt, whose efforts towards peace Senators Bayh and Risch correctly recognized in their letter, the policy of rejecting Israel's sovereignty by all of the other Arab nations, continues unbroken to this day. With or without the settlements, there is no reason to believe it would not continue. That is why it is so important not to couple these issues. In order for there to be peace in the Middle East, Arab nations must first acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a nation in that region…”

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