Broward News

For Congress, Mum's the Word on Netanyahu Visit; But Jewish Scholar Has Opinion

Broward and Palm Beach's Jewish congressional members were all eagerly anticipating this week's visit to Washington D.C. of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and yet none appear eager to speak about it. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's office made no statement following a morning meeting with Netanyahu she attended with other congressional members. Ron Klein attended the same meeting but offered a bland commentary that belies his mastery of the subject. So, too, has Robert Wexler favored platitudes over policy specifics.

Obviously, South Florida's congressional delegation wants to help both the U.S. and Israel present to the world the picture of a happy partnership, even if everyone knows that major policy differences exist between the two sides.

So this afternoon I consulted Eli Kavon, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University who lectures on Jewish history and isn't too muzzled by political concerns to talk about the diplomatic differences between the two sides.

By Kavon's reckoning, Obama holds all the cards and he knows it. "Israel doesn't have a choice," says Kavon. "It has to follow the plan Obama has."

Which means giving the administration's two-state solution a try, even if Netanyahu doesn't think it has a chance, and even if it will infuriate the Knesset, which has moved to the right since the last election.

Kavon himself thinks a two-state solution may have a chance some day, but no time soon. At least not until Hamas, the terrorist group-turned-democratic ruler in the Gaza Strip, accepts Israel's right to exist. Until then, there's little point in negotiating with the more moderate Fatah in the West Bank. "Any peace with only one party of Palestinians is not a peace," says Kavon.

That's hardly the only concern. Kavon detects a "strong undercurrent" of belief in parts of the Arab world that history is conspiring against a Jewish state, and that Arabs need only wait for that day. "Israel is an island amid many millions of Arabs and among some of them there's this fantastical notion that Israel is not here to stay," says Kavon.

But Obama has a knack for a calm, reasoned approach that makes extremists seem unhinged and dangerous by comparison. By paying symbolic respects to Islamic holidays and promising a change from the rhetorical bullying of the Bush administration, Obama hopes to undermine the paranoia and hatred that groups like Hamas exploit for popularity.

And the strategy appears to be the same with the mullahs who rule Iran and whose nuclear weapons development program threatens Israel more each day.

In both cases, Kavon has doubts. "So many of these antipathies in the Islamic world are so old -- they date back centuries," he says. "I'm skeptical about the administration's being able to step in and be an arbiter of all these factions."

The single chance for peace in the region, Kavon believes, must "come from within." That is, from within the same Arab populations that voted for Hamas, harbored Hezbollah and cheered al Qaeda.

Obama stressed the need for tough economic sanctions against Iran if the nation doesn't ditch its nuclear program soon, but it's still frustrating for Kavon -- and likely for Israelis -- who find it hard to be so patient. "For the Obama administration, there isn't an urgency like there is in Israel," he says.

Politically, the trick for Netanyahu will be to keep Israel's relationship with America strong while keeping critics from the right from calling him weak. Given the stakes, Kavon reasons that Netanyahu will err on the side of good graces with the West. "Israel can't afford to diverge too much from America," he says. "Israel is not a vassal of America, but it relies heavily on the goodwill of the American people."

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Thomas Francis