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Washington D.C. – J Street has just completed its second annual conference, “Giving Voice to Our Values” on Tuesday at the Washington Convention Center. The now three-year old Jewish-American advocacy organization offers a pro-Israel, pro-peace alternative to the other more hawkish lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Over 2400 people attended this year’s conference-a 60% increase from 1500 attendees at J Street’s kickoff event in late October 2009.

National Security Advisor General James Jones promised at the inaugural event that the Obama administration would be, “…represented at all other future J Street conferences.” This year, the White House sent Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East expert having served the Clinton and Bush administrations, and currently, special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In his keynote, Ross largely focused on the “remarkable transformation” taking place in the Middle East with peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt unseating entrenched autocratic regimes-“the sort of thing that in the past would be unthinkable.”

Other notable J Street speakers included Professor Eric Alterman, Middle East expert Dr. Kenneth Pollack, author Barbara Slavin, Tikkun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner, Just Vision’s Ronit Avni, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson–and a surprise presentation by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the gala dinner.

“Global Israel” vs. “Greater Israel”

A potent meme emerged at the conference, which, for me, accurately frames the debate between the two rival Jewish-American advocacy organizations.

“Global Israel”-carried by J Street-and, “Greater Israel”, by AIPAC (a.k.a., Future v. Past).

There is a considerable amount of competitive back-and-forth between adherents of these two groups (putting it mildly), both claiming the mantle of being pro-Israel, but in different ways.

Arguments in the turf-war by AIPAC supporters have attempted to delegitimize J Street–that they’re not really pro-Israel, or no one should take them seriously–in many cases, the larger group’s attacks seem more like bullying, with AIPAC playing Goliath to J Street’s David.  

Dennis Ross–Obama’s messenger to J Street–has been active with AIPAC for many years having addressed the organization’s policy conferences numerous times, co-founded an AIPAC sponsored think-tank in 1985, and wrote part of Barack Obama’s AIPAC speech in 2008.

After giving a policy statement on developments in Egypt, Ross commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and basically told the J Street plenary–in a dispassionate diplomatic tone–“we’re working with each side in parallel, it hasn’t played itself out yet, but we’ll let you know.”

However, on the opening night, journalist Peter Beinart provided context and put some real numbers behind the ineffectual nature of the negotiations that have occurred to date. In the 1980s during the Reagan administration, there were 10,000 Jewish settlers in Palestinian occupied territories-now there are 500,000.

Survival of Israel Relies on Two-State Solution

Last year’s conference hammered time and again, by a lengthy roster of individuals sporting unassailable pro-Israel credentials, the necessity for Israel to finally resolve the conflict. Haim Ramon, 26-year Knesset Member and former Israeli Vice-Prime Minister, stated this in no uncertain terms,

“If we will not reach a solution based on a two-state solution, then – and “then” will be very soon – it will be a one-state solution and that means the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

This year, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami reprised this note in his opening address,

“The time has come for Israel to choose among three things: being a Jewish homeland, remaining democratic, and maintaining control over all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Israel can have only two of the three. It can only be both Jewish and democratic by giving up the land on which a Palestinian state can be built in exchange for peace.”

The clock is ticking out due to domestic demographic realities and international political pressure. The increasing growth of inflexible nationalist attitudes and unyielding religious fundamentalism on all sides of the conflict–combined with a global crescendo calling for an end to human rights abuses–has put the status quo on an untenable tract.

But the endless series of talks and negotiations–Madrid/1991, Oslo/1993, Camp David/2000, Taba/2001, Beirut/2002, Geneva/2003, Annapolis/2007–haven’t produced any satisfactory results, while Palestinian land has been increasingly fragmented by more and more Jewish settlements and settlers.

Mounting Global Pressure for Resolution of Conflict

This perpetual diplomatic runaround has been a contributing factor for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to begin searching for solutions elsewhere. President Abbas is now lobbying for more countries to officially recognize the State of Palestine with Brazil, Argentina, and Peru recently being added to the growing list of over 100 nations including Russia, Poland, and most all of Africa and the Middle East.

“If Israel refuses to freeze settlements, we will ask the US to propose a solution and submit it to both sides. If we fail, we will go to the UN Security Council seeking international recognition of a Palestinian state.” ~ President Mahmoud Abbas

Dennis Ross, when queried about this development responded, “The one thing that’s been clear all along in this conflict is that unilateral moves aren’t going to produce agreements; unless of course, unilateral moves are basically negotiated behind the scenes.”

Enter “Greater Israel”, stage right.

Greater Israel originally refers to the Biblical idea of the “Promised Land” given by God to the Israelites. Today, it’s commonly defined as the land of Israel together with the Palestinian occupied territories.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants peace, but if he did, why wouldn’t he satisfy the desire of Israel’s most trusted ally and staunch supporter, the United States, and put a moratorium on settlement expansion allowing for direct negotiations to begin again? There’s a disconnect in the logic.

A 16th century French writer named Michel de Montaigne once intoned, “Saying is one thing, but doing is another.” Like Netanyahu, AIPAC claims to want and pursue peace, yet, as recently as February 10th, defended settlement expansion as, “not an obstacle to continued talks.” But clearly the expansion is an obstacle to peace, which is why every American administration has opposed Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territories since the occup
ation began in 1967.

Voices of Reason and a Role for America

In a panel immediately following Dennis Ross, Bernard Avishai lamented President Obama not publically embracing the well-known two-state deal points to galvanize world opinion, but rather, the administration acting as a sort of behind-the-scenes therapist, or, “mediator to get the parties to ‘Yes’.”

Avishai explains,

“That is not the purpose (only acting as mediator) of an American administration. The American administration in adopting these very well-known principles can create a kind of organized international opinion with respect to what the disposition of this conflict is, and also make an important statement, which is, that the Palestine issue is not the internal problem of Israel alone, and the existence of Israel is not simply the responsibility of the Israeli Army.”

Daniel Levy, lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Accord two-state solution, exasperated on the lack of forward-thinking coming from Ross even while stating, “the status quo is unsustainable.”

“If the ambition today is to get the parties back to bilateral negotiations, then that is not commensurate with the challenges we face or with learning from history-if the idea today is to build confidence, 18 years after Oslo (peace talks), between an occupying power and an occupied people, in this situation of power asymmetry–really?”

Both sides in this equation, Israelis and Palestinians, comprise nationalist movements, and in order for a peace deal to be lasting, satisfying these nationalist aspirations-at least partially-is a pre-requisite. However, even with all the main political actors giving lip service to a “two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side”, there is a considerable amount of evidence that the peace process to date has been more of a slow-walking, delaying action rather than an effective means to ameliorate the conflict.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen spoke poignantly about the lack of results, “When I hear that word “process”, you know I just die somewhere inside-there is no process, there is no peace.”

Bernard Avishai then laid out a vision for how the Obama administration could assemble the framework to build an international gravity uplifting Israel into a sustainable relationship with her Arab neighbors, and Palestinians living within her jurisdiction.

“When you set a strategy you’re trying to create an overarching scheme for the way in which obstacles will slowly, systematically be overcome…if the “Obama blueprint” (for a two-state solution) is out there, and seems to have the world at its back, that starts to create a kind of ambient pressure on the system…for Palestinians in the streets, it’s terribly important to have this overarching thing hanging out there simply to give them a horizon, and a sense of hope, something that the Obama administration had said at the beginning of its journey.”

Avishai then identified the crux of the impasse, the biggest obstacle towards a peace settlement,

“From the point of view of the Israeli political system, we’re in a kind of interesting bind here. On the whole, Israelis are inclined to endorse the Obama blueprint. The problem comes when they have to confront the one third of Israel that is absolutely-and determined-to obstruct any deal whatsoever for obvious reasons. There are lots of people living in and around Jerusalem supporting the settlement project-let’s call them, “The Judeans”-the Israelis living along the coast (Tel Aviv) do not want to confront “the Judeans” for the sake of the Palestinians.

Let’s put it this way, those who believe in “Global Israel” don’t want to confront those who believe in “Greater Israel”. And they think they don’t have to because America is at their back and will always, in effect, coddle Greater Israel, and not make Global Israel have to take a stand.”

Bernard Avishai is the appropriate voice to articulate this distinction. As a contributing editor of the Harvard Business Review, he understands the power of regional economic cooperation to uplift societies, bringing entrepreneurial opportunities and prosperity to their people.

At the last J Street, Avishai spoke about what a Global Israel at peace with her neighbors might look like, “…a two-state solution is really a three-state solution (common-market with Jordan)–it’s really a twenty-state solution, because it means developing a relationship with the countries of the Mediterranean through a Sarkozy-like European Union–we have to begin to understand that Israel is not a nation that dwells alone.”

It’s the interconnected nature of the new world that best favors a Global Israel over Greater Israel, and every moment that moves technology forward into the 21st century will make this contrast even more stark. As our world becomes more seamless, political isolation will no longer be an option for Israel, nor America.

Breaking Down The Fear

Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism published this attack on J Street,  

“Just how extreme and anti-Israel is J Street? Yet despite Obama’s tacit support of this dangerous group and his manifest preference for the company of Jew-haters, the vile anti-Jewish J Street is being shunned by K street, Congress, and anyone with an ounce of basic human decency. Only Barack Obama has sanctioned this stain on humanity.”

How can people talking about peace, human rights, dignity, be so threatening? Just like protesting Egyptians were threatening to their status quo, so is J Street. There’s nothing wrong with talking about human rights, dignity, democracy-people are talking about those things all over the world-why should they stop when it concerns the inhabitants of the Holy Land? The harshest criticisms leveled at J Street reminds me of people burning Beatles records because “Rock ‘n Roll is Satan’s music.” New things can be hard to metabolize for those clinging to old ways.

I think there is value in seeing the future and getting on the right side of history. AIPAC was formed in 1953, shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. I can see how many of its supporters consider AIPAC to be virtually synonymous with Israel, and any organization, like J Street, that emerges attempting to offer a dissenting perspective on what it really means to be pro-Israel, is simply “anti-Israel.” But this is two-dimensional thinking in a very dynamic 3d world. There’s common ground on which both AIPAC and J Street stand, and a respectful conversation between these two organizations would be good for Israel and America, instead of never sharing a stage or recognizing that diversity of thought is ultimately a strength, not a weakness.

There’s a movement going on, and it’s a global movement. It’s about connecting people-to-people, and reversing old systems that deny basic human rights. It’s not unlike what our country went through over two hundred years ago, and then a hundred years later to abolish slavery. Any government that institutionally works to oppress or discriminate people has to realize that reform will happen one way or another-the Facebook and Twitter uprisings in the Middle East have made what were formally theoretical perspectives on social networks, democracy, and interconnectivity, very, very real.

Ten Days Too Late

Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy spoke at J Street about the overturned Tunisian and Egyptian regimes each coming out during the uprisings and making three speeches and then collapsing-the speeches were “ten days too late”. If they had been made ten days earlier, some people might have listened. There are realists now serving in the Israeli government that see the big picture-they need to take decisive action before it’s “ten days too late.”  

In January 2009, I remember speaki
ng at a gathering in an Arabic Bedouin village in Israel about human rights, and introducing them to the constitutional protections we enjoy in America, freedom of expression, religion, assembly, the press. I could feel the visceral reaction of hope they had to this idea-to Americans, the Constitution is like religious scripture, but often taken for granted. Currently, there are no equivalent protections applying to all of Israel’s inhabitants, but I venture, someday, there will be.

As an American, I believe we must end the antiquated Cold War thinking in opposing human rights and democracy around the world, and begin to transform our foreign policy into a commensurate relationship with the values we hold. The debate between Global Israel and Greater Israel revolves around the support and amplification of these universal values for all human beings.

Ultimately, we must support the principle–as was said in a classic Star Trek episode by a Jewish Canadian–the values set forth in America’s founding documents must apply to all, or they mean nothing.