Last night, something fairly unprecedented happened in New York: The Palestinian Authority’s nominal top two figures, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, attended two separate dinner events organized by prominent American Jewish figures to discuss how eager they are to strike a final peace agreement with the Israelis. Unfortunately, the dinners followed an episode that was, well, entirely with precedent: A meeting for international donors to the P.A., held on the sidelines of this week’s United Nations General Assembly, ended abruptly because of a dispute between Fayyad and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. What was the problem? Words, of course—specifically, Fayyad’s refusal to accept Ayalon’s demand that the group’s press release declare support for “two states for two peoples.”
This morning, Ayalon, speaking before yet a third group of American Jewish leaders (as well as reporters, including this one), excused himself by saying the episode revealed a “cultural” gulf between the Israelis and the Palestinians that transcends the more obvious, and immediate, stumbling block to the fledgling peace negotiations—namely, this Sunday’s expiration of the ten-month-long moratorium on new construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “I didn’t say ‘two states for two peoples, Jews and Palestinians,’” Ayalon explained. “But if they don’t have the decency to talk about two states for two peoples, then there is a major problem here.”
Well. Since Ayalon proceeded to repeat almost word-for-word the formulation Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains in Jerusalem, used last weekend to call on Abbas to recognize the Jewish state—that he needs to say it not in English or in Hebrew but in Arabic, “to his own people in their own language”—we can probably assume that there’s a concerted strategy to introduce the notion that, if the talks do collapse, it’s not just because of Israeli intransigence on the settlement issue.
But here is where the chickens of this summer’s heated debate over Israel’s proposed new conversion bill have come home to roost: It’s difficult to tell non-Orthodox American Jews that they should back an Israeli negotiating position predicated on drawing a clear line between Jews and everyone else when their own Jewishness has recently been viciously called into question by Israeli leaders, including those of Ayalon’s own Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar.
So almost as the words came out of his mouth, Ayalon—who was standing squarely opposite Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, head of the Conservative movement, sitting with her arms crossed—seemed to realize this inevitable rebuttal. Hands shot up, with their owners eager to press the question, “A Jewish state … for whom?” “Well,” said Ayalon, a former ambassador to the U.S. and a reasonably agile politician, “Israel is not just for Israelis, it’s for the Jewish people.” He tried to extend an olive branch, saying his party would gladly solicit ideas from Reform and Conservative leaders. But he stumbled over Schoenfeld’s name, calling her Rabbi Schoenberg instead. She didn’t reply, but simply nodded and gave a Cheshire cat-like smile.