The Rebbe of the West Bank
Last week, my wife and I met at the White House with our friend Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s chief Middle East negotiator. Jason’s a busy man, and I’m grateful for both his friendship and his time. I have published columns before attesting to Jason’s extraordinary competence, high character and humble demeanor — qualities that make him an ideal envoy for peace. Most of all, Jason serves as a kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name with his respectful words and actions.
At our meeting, I gave Jason a copy of the Hebrew-language book I Called and None Listened, a collection of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) speeches, essays and letters about the land of Israel and how peace in the Middle East might be achieved.
Jason is tasked with the herculean objective of bringing tranquility to the world’s most troubled region. It is a project that will demand every talent in his arsenal, and then some.
Joining him in this effort is our friend David Friedman, the newly installed US ambassador to Israel.
Here is a diplomatic duo unequaled in their dedication to American values and Israel’s security. How will they go about implementing the president’s sincere desire for a peace deal? How will they find the correct balance of pressure and incentive that might bring an end to conflict?
There were few issues about which the Lubavitcher Rebbe was more passionate than Israel. The rebbe spoke on Torah for hours at a time, several times a week, always stoically and even-handedly. But, he would transform suddenly when it came Israel. When voicing his opposition to the belief that land-concessions would bring peace, the rebbe would alter his entire posture. He would become super-charged with passion, his voice would rise, his body language would surge. His language changed and he was prepared, for the first time, to voice strong challenges to those Israeli leaders compromising Israel’s security through territorial concessions.
The rebbe’s followers treated him as something of a prophet. I’m not here to debate that point, and those who do not adhere to Chabad ideology would surely beg to differ. But his predictions about land-for-peace deals surely proved prescient.
He predicted three outcomes when, in the late 1970s, US President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat debated the return of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace:
- The world would develop an insatiable appetite for Jewish land. Rather than satisfying the world’s lust for diminishing the size of the Jewish state, the message would be that the Jews themselves had conceded to the claim that they are occupiers.
- Jews would be attacked. The return of land would compromise Israel’s security and embolden its enemies to strike. Terrorism would increase rather than decrease.
- Israel would be demonized. Rather than receiving a windfall of positive publicity and international goodwill for making peace, surrendering land would be used as a PR baseball-bat to bludgeon Israel with delegitimization campaigns and international boycotts.
All three of these predictions were, unfortunately, proven true. After Israel surrendered the Sinai, pressure immediately began to build for it to return the Golan Heights to Syria and Gaza to the Palestinians. Judea and Samaria were also caught in the crosshairs. Most importantly, Jerusalem was identified as the supreme example of Israeli occupation, with the eternal capital of the Jewish people becoming a city to which the Jews had little claim, and proposed as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
True, Israel has not had a war with Egypt in nearly four decades. But it’s a frigid peace, similar to the cold war Israel has engaged in with Syria, with whom there has similarly been no direct military battle for nearly four decades. Egypt remains one of the world’s largest exporters of official, state-sponsored antisemitism, and its population is deeply hostile to Jews and Israel, according to all polls. In addition, Sinai today has become a mini-state dominated by ISIS with little to no Egyptian control. Israel has recently remodeled entire sections of the IDF to deal with potential threats from the Sinai Peninsula.
True, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has changed course and became Israel’s friend, perhaps even an ally. In light of Egypt’s recent history — which has been an especially volatile period of rapid regime change — we can only hope that this continues and peace will prevail.
But even if we applaud Israel’s courage to make peace with Egypt, why did it lead to Israel’s demonization?
It began with Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter. Scholars have pondered for decades as to how Begin, who had always believed in the concept of “Greater Israel,” could have been the one to give away all of Sinai after winning it in a defensive war. This question is especially potent when you consider the fact that he probably didn’t need to. Egypt had, thank God, been crushed by Israel in three consecutive wars, and their inferiority to the Jewish state in conventional warfare was unquestionable. Like Syria, to whom Israel did not cede an inch of land, Egypt would have in all likelihood never renewed open hostilities with Israel. The consensus is that Begin believed that the most important issue for Israel’s security was a good relationship with the president of the United States. And it was due to this belief that he gave in to all of Carter’s demands.
How did that turn out? Carter became the single most hostile president to the Jewish state in American history. Begin’s capitulation left Carter not with admiration, but with contempt.
The same dynamic played out during the first premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, when he withdrew from Hebron in 1997, the second holiest city in all of Israel and the resting place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca and Leah. Netanyahu felt compelled to abide by the Oslo terms that had been negotiated by Rabin before him. But in doing so, he did nothing to change the continued contempt that President Clinton had always shown him. The very next year, President Clinton would send his own political consultants to work with the Israeli opposition that would ultimately defeat Netanyahu.
I had the privilege of hosting the prime minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, at Oxford and Cambridge universities to talk about his noted book, Origins of the Spanish Inquisition. As fortune would have it, I was with him around the period that his son signed the Wye River Accord in Maryland.
I will never forget the great scholar-warrior, who died in 2012, telling me that his son had been subjected to unbearable pressure, and that otherwise he would have never relinquished land vital to Israel.
Of course, Israel’s reward for the Oslo Accords was a slew of suicide bombings in 1995 and then a full-scale intifada at the turn of the millennium that would claim over a thousand Jewish lives.
Netanyahu’s government lost the subsequent election and was replaced by one under the helm of Ehud Barak. But when Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 he learned from his earlier mistakes and has since never conceded land. He now continues as almost the longest serving Israeli prime minister in the state’s history.
Donald Trump has thus far proved a staunch friend and protector of Israel and his defense of the country at the UN through his emissary Nikki Haley has no parallel. His warmth toward Prime Minister Netanyahu at their recent meeting was emphatically recounted by Netanyahu at last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Jason and David are American patriots and proud Jews. They know that the three great principles of the Jewish faith are: first, peace is life’s highest goal; second, every human life is equal and of infinite value, Jew and Arab alike — an Arab child is equally loved by God as a Jewish child and vice versa; third, God gave the Jewish people a tiny little sliver of land called Israel as an eternal birthright and homeland.
The great events of Jewish Biblical history and most of its holy sites are in Judea and Samaria which Jordan, in an effort to erase Jewish history, renamed the West Bank — just as the Romans, two thousand years earlier, had renamed Judea “Palaestina.” We all want peace but I would beg to remind those charged with achieving it a lesson we’ve learned: surrendering land has brought war, not peace.
The Palestinians are my brothers and sisters, and Jason Greenblatt’s recent mission to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — in which he strongly encouraged economic development, self-sufficiency and opportunity for the Palestinians of Judea and Samaria — was a noble and inspiring effort. The Palestinians deserve the same experience of human dignity and standard of living as do the people of Israel. It will not come, however, through their subjugation to the dictatorship of yet another Arab leader. Nor will it come through a land-for-peace framework that emboldens Israel’s enemies, compromises its security and solidifies international enmity toward the Jewish state.
Far better for the Trump administration to work on its inspired idea of an outside-in approach, resolving to try and create peace between the Arab gulf states and Israel which will demonstrate to the Palestinians that their hopes of Israel’s isolation and diplomatic capitulation are a thing of the past.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior,” which he discussed at the 2017 AIPAC National Policy Conference. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.