The Israel director of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Jeff Daube, has expressed dismay about President Barack Obama’s decision not to schedule an address at the Knesset as part of his late March visit to Israel. The ZOA also has objected to the exclusion of the Ariel University students from the list of invitees to the presidential speech in Jerusalem’s convention center, even as all of Israel’s other universities were included.
Mr. Daube wrote the following letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, concerning the affront to both institutions. Copies of the letter were sent to MK Reuven Rivlin, who had invited President Obama to address his colleagues when he was the Speaker of the Knesset in the former government; MK Yoni Chetboun (Jewish Home); MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud Beteinu); MK Nachman Shai (Labor); MK Avi Wortzman (Jewish Home); and Professor Yehuda Danon, President of Ariel University.
Dear Ambassador Shapiro:
I feel compelled to speak up about two unsettling aspects of President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel that have been reported: the President’s passing on addressing the Knesset, and the effective barring of the Ariel University students from the event to be held in its place.
MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud Beteinu) sent me the letter she wrote to President Obama, together with MK Avraham Wortzman (Bayit Yehudi), asking him to reconsider and speak at “the official parliament of the State of Israel…which is seated in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish nation.” After all, the MKs stated, the Knesset is the institution most identified with Israeli statehood and democracy, representing “all of our country’s citizens — Jews, Arabs, Druze, Christians and Muslims alike.”
Based on my discussions in my capacity as the ZOA Israel Director, I am certain Hotovely and Wortzman have expressed the will of the overwhelming majority of Knesset members. They, too, would like to demonstrate their appreciation for the President’s declared unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. Specifically, they are most eager to hear confirming words directly from him that he will ensure regional security against the Iranian nuclear menace.
Knesset members also have shared with me their concerns about the President’s support for a new Palestinian entity that is sure to end up a failed state at best, but more likely an existential threat to the peace-loving peoples of the roiling Middle East. Incontrovertible examples of PA anti-Israel incitement to this day, and the PA’s de facto partnership with Hamas, whose intention to destroy Israel has never abated, give Israel’s leadership much to worry about. Thus, they were hoping to hear about the President’s intentions for his Ramallah visit, and that he will insist the PA distance itself from all anti-Israel rhetoric and liaisons.
On two occasions, the U.S. Congress graciously extended an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak before a joint session. Each time, the Israeli Prime Minister and the elected representatives of the American people, who gave him multiple standing ovations, affirmed their mutual commitment to each other’s security and welfare. It is a great disappointment to all who believe in the natural and enduring alliance of America and Israel that a reciprocal event will not take place at this opportune moment.
As for the other matter: the reported decision to exclude the Ariel University students from the President’s scheduled Binyanei Hauma address. My organization is in complete agreement with the many pundits and leaders who have emphatically objected: for example, MK Yoni Chetboun (Bayit Yehudi), who pointed to the inconsistency in the President’s decision to avoid the Knesset supposedly because that would be too political, while making at the same time a blatant political decision concerning one of Israel’s most highly regarded educational institutions; and MK Nachman Shai (Labor) who said, “It is shocking to think you can disqualify students just because they learn in the West Bank. I do not understand how President Obama wants to conduct a dialogue with the Israeli public when he is consciously excluding part of it.”
ZOA’s National President Morton Klein also put it well: “Quite apart from the fact that one of the best ways to address the Israeli public is to deliver a televised speech to its democratically elected representatives in the Knesset, there is something deeply divisive and politicized in President Obama’s decision to exclude from his audience Jewish and Arab students from Ariel University” (https://zoa.org/2013/03/10194242-zoa-critical-of-obama-excluding-ariel-u-students-from-jlem-speech/).
Whether this was the result of a presidential decision as originally reported, or following an embassy protocol per the explanation which looks to have been contrived after the fact, this discriminatory gesture is especially puzzling considering the now fully accredited Ariel University is the very model of diversity. Aside from the multitude of Arab students happily enrolled there, Ariel University has more Ethiopian students than any other Israeli university, both in percentage and absolute numbers.
Moreover, as I’m sure the President has learned from past experience, the Palestinians interpret such moves as tacit U.S. approval for their hardened positions, unilateral steps and negotiations avoidance. Yet Ariel, along with the other residential blocs, is well within the Israeli consensus; with the exception of an extreme fringe, Israelis expect Ariel to be included within sovereign Israel in any negotiated agreement. Inviting the Ariel students would send a different kind of message to the PA: You must return to the negotiations with certain realities already accepted, and in the spirit of give — not only take.
Mr. Ambassador, you have kindly opened your door to me in the past, most recently when I asked you to help American-Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism who are being thwarted in their quest for justice. As the ZOA representative in Israel, I once again respectfully request your assistance.
I realize that at this point it may be difficult for the President to alter his plans to include an address at the Knesset — though perhaps in a subsequent visit, at least, President Obama might choose to speak there, as did his predecessor, President G.W. Bush, during his second visit.
There still is time, however, to right the wrongful exclusion of the Ariel University students. On behalf of those of us who celebrate inclusiveness, including the ZOA’s very substantial following in the U.S. and the tens of thousands of Americans residing and working in Israel, I hope these Ariel students, Jews and Arabs together, indeed will be permitted to join President Obama on March 21 for his Jerusalem address. We would love to point to this as a shining example of how the values of coexistence and tolerance might animate future negotiations.
Of course I know it is impossible to satisfy all of the diverse interests of this robust Middle East democracy. That said, I strongly believe the Israeli people — like the Americans in Israel — identify with the sentiments of this letter. I thank you in advance for your consideration and look forward to your reply.
ZOA Israel Director