These days, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Israel and “peace” without falling prey to warmed-over platitudes and stale talking points. And in an age of political polarization, it can be hard to find voices who speak of the Jewish state out of genuine love, but who also passionately pursue the establishment of a Palestinian state—two opinions that absolutists insist cannot coincide. But on December 6, at the Israel Policy Forum’s gala reception in New York, General John Allen managed to confound these constraints, offering an affecting liberal Zionist account of Israel’s necessity and peace’s possibility.
Allen, a retired four-star general who most recently served as President Obama’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, was being honored by IPF for his work designing detailed security arrangements to make a two-state solution both possible and durable for Israelis and Palestinians. But instead of discussing that work at length, Allen, 63, opted instead to deliver a deeply personal speech reflecting on his Zionist upbringing, and the Zionism and philo-Semitism that has long been shared by so many non-Jewish Americans.
“Rather than spend a lot of time on the technical details of the work that we did,” the general opened, “I wanted to speak from the heart about how I came to find myself involved in this way with Israel—and I may be a bit emotional in the process.” The speech did not disappoint:
It was early morning, a June morning, in 1967. I was 13 and I was dead asleep in my home in Virginia. As it was my father’s wont, who always would say goodbye to me in the morning, he gently gripped my shoulder and said, “Son, get up. Israel is fighting for its life. The Middle East is aflame.” It was very early in the morning for television in those days, but the news shows were offering special coverage of what would be one of the greatest military victories in modern history, the Six Day War.
My father and I would remain glued to the television for the entire war. And when we saw those images of Israeli paratroopers worshiping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, we knew that we were witnessing something extraordinary. And when I looked at my dad I was surprised to see him weeping for joy. This was the man whose destroyer was torpedoed by a German u-boat in the North Atlantic, even before World War II began, and would fight his way all the way across the Atlantic and all the way across the Pacific, and whose ship was anchored within sight of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered. Later he would fight in the Korean War and he would design the U.S. strategic communications that would enable the Navy to dominate the seas against the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. This good man, this hard man, was weeping tears of joy. The Jewish people were safe. Israel would survive. You know, I would never be the same again…
Many years later as a major in the Marine Corps, I’d be honored to teach in the political science department at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I leapt at the opportunity to teach Middle East politics. And among the many topics in that course, I taught a module on the Six Day War, the only place in the academy it was taught. I wanted my students, I wanted the midshipmen who were headed for service in the Navy and the Marine Corps, to understand what winning looked like. But I also wanted them to understand who the people were in this region and the faiths which animated their souls. So I brought in rabbis to speak to the midshipmen, and we visited the imam at the National Mosque. It was for them, I’d hoped, a little of what my dad had given me.
I of course tried to balance the course in my treatment of history, but I was my father’s son. I remember one day, one of my students, a young Arab exchange student—and I spent a lot of time with the young Arabs at the Naval Academy, helping them to adjust to America and to our military way—came asking me for help with an issue he was encountering with the brigade of midshipmen. During my conversation with him I asked him how he thought the course was going. Completely matter-of-factly, he looked at me and smiled and said, “Oh, it’s a good course, sir! We all think you’re a Zionist.”
Allen retired from the military after 38 years of service, intending to go into the private sector. “But I had barely hung up my uniform when John Kerry called me, and he asked me to join him in the reinvigorated peace process.” The general immediately said yes, and became Kerry’s senior adviser in charge of security arrangements for a future two-state solution. “Our number one goal in the outcome of our efforts was the safety of the Jewish people and the security of Israel, a pledge I made personally to Prime Minister Netanyahu when I presented him my introductory letter from President Obama,” Allen recalled. “But I was also clear we sought to support a two-state outcome, so a secure, sovereign, and independent Palestine was also an objective.” Overseeing Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, Allen worked to “fashion a security plan which could support and provide a platform for progress.”
The general closed by addressing the elephant in the room—the increasingly dim hopes for a two-state solution in light of developments in the Middle East and the recent American election:
The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen: At the end of my 45 years of service in the U.S., I’ve seen what I believe can be a workable security solution to support the forward movement of peace. It will be hard, and it will take years, it might even take decades, to implement all of the pieces. But for the sake of Israel, there is no other viable option.
Given the state of the region, it seems remote now that we can see our way to the fulfillment of this plan. There is so much hostility and so little trust that it seems nearly impossible to imagine that there could every be a viable peace. But now I go back to the history of Israel. Last week was the 69th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly vote to accept the plan to partition Palestine, which would give birth to the state of Israel. And in that short 69 year period, Israel has overcome nearly impossible challenges to its existence to become the beacon to the region and the world no one could possibly have imagined in November 1947.
And so it is with peace. For while it seems impossible today, we must envisage an outcome where the Jewish people are safe and the state of Israel is secure, but with a young Palestinian state next door–a security partner, not a security threat. My exposure to the realities of what we face in this undertaking are not academic, nor are they theoretical. I believe we have it within us, we have it within our reach, to achieve this outcome.
Watch the entire speech below: