Washington D.C. — Answering the need for a more balanced and future-focused approach concerning US, Israeli and Arab relations, J Street has just completed its inaugural conference in Washington with more than 1500 in attendance (Oct. 25-28).
Speaking on behalf of President Obama, National Security Advisor General James Jones addressed the conference and congratulated its success, promising,
“…you can be sure that this Administration will be represented at all other future J Street conferences.”
The event marks a turning point in American-Israeli advocacy – J Street has arrived and is here to stay.
Unbridled enthusiasm was evidenced throughout the three day conference by the larger than expected turnout with standing-room only workshops, torrential networking and a sold-out gala featuring a video endorsement from Jordan’s King Abdullah and an impressive hosting committee of 148 members of Congress.
J Street emerges as an amalgamation of Jewish American progressive groups and voices – by far the largest in US history – into one effective political lobbying force with singular purpose; compelling American leadership into a more active and penetrating diplomatic role helping to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Wednesday, 700 J Street activists championed the “pro-Israel and pro-peace” message on Capitol Hill with meetings held in 210 out of the total 535 Congressional offices.
Many may wonder: why the need for another American-Israeli political action committee?
The basic story I gleaned from the conference is that J Street fills an important vacuum in representing views of a majority of American Jews that are not being heard in Washington today. A recent J Street poll found 84% of American Jews supported the US playing an “active role” in the peace process, with downward steps at 81%, if including pressuring Israelis and Palestinians, and down to 66%, if incorporating public criticism in the process.
These views have not been capably represented by AIPAC (the original Israel American lobby formed in 1953), which favors a more hawkish position on Israeli security issues and sidelines American involvement when it comes to any peace negotiations with Palestinians.
But here’s the problem. Many experts – both American and Israeli – see the perpetuation of the conflict as being an existential threat to the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Their warning? If real movement doesn’t happen soon on the two-state front, it may be too late.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, stated in no uncertain terms,
“Pro-Israel organizations know that the creation and support of a Jewish and democratic state is the central value of Zionism, indeed, it is the very reason Zionism came into being – and absent a two-state solution, there will be no such thing.”
This existential threat was hammered time and again throughout the conference by a lengthy roster of individuals sporting unassailable pro-Israel credentials. For years now, AIPAC leadership has ignored these valid security concerns justifying J Street’s emergence as a new and necessary pro-Israel voice on Capitol Hill.
Haim Ramon, 26-year Knesset Member and former Israeli Vice-Prime Minister, echoed the need for immediate action,
“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.”
The key concept to unpack J Street, is in re-defining just what it means to be “pro-Israel”. In other words, if Israel is on a self-destructive path, well, friends don’t let friends drive drunk, do they? In this, J Street sees the role of pressing US intervention as very pro-Israel and pro-American.
Among the bullet points:
1. There is a limited “window of opportunity” to achieve a two-state solution in which a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestine lives side-by-side with Israel.
2. 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.
3. Either a two-state solution will be achieved, or a de facto one-state solution will be imposed as the only remaining option.
4. The one-state solution sees Israel losing her Jewish majority and risking the loss of political control of the “Jewish homeland”.
Reassessing what it means to be “pro-Israel” – especially from an American Zionist point of view – rests in the fact that it is no longer 1948 or 1967, it is 2009. The realities on the ground have changed; the old ways and old thinking do not work anymore.
Having experience with Israeli politics and various efforts towards conflict resolution in the Middle East, I understand these new realities and have seen firsthand the tragic consequences of paralyzed leadership and know that time is running out.
On Wednesday, I took part in sharing this message on Capitol Hill to the offices of Senators McCaskill (D-MO), Boxer (D-CA) and Feinstein (D-CA) and spoke personally with Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO2) who had met with another J Street team earlier that day.
There is a moral obligation and a strategic necessity to press into a more active role in achieving an acceptable two-state settlement – standing on the sidelines is no longer in the National Security interests of the United States. Coupled with the unequivocal guarantee of Israel’s safety and security, we must prioritize moving past the stumbling blocks that have derailed previous efforts. This means all sides must make hard sacrifices and give up their romantic and excessive nationalist notions.
A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the strategic interests of the US:
1. Nuanced strategy can be just as effective as hardline policy. For example, pulling back the defense missile plan in Eastern Europe in favor of ship-based systems has positively impacted US-Russian relations and helped to garner support in dealing with Iranian nuclear ambitions, a deepening national security concern of Israel and the US. The wide-ranging effects of a peace settlement will contribute to building an international consensus in regard to Iran, and pave the way for an eventual nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
2. Human rights abuses and violence on both sides of conflict are a destabilizing factor, which has negative repercussions on continuing US operations in the Middle East and Near East. The two-state solution would be a stabilizing influence and begin to neutralize criticism of the US and Israel consequently weakening the message of our detractors.
3. Continued occupation of Palestin
ian territories with US support is a hot-button topic among Muslims; a peaceful resolution to the conflict would help rehabilitate our image in the Islamic world and normalization of Israeli relations with her Arab neighbors would further economic interdependency between Israel and her neighbors, and between the region and the world.
Economist and past editor of the Harvard Business Review Bernard Avishai framed the two poles in American Israeli advocacy very clearly as being a case of old versus the new.
He prefaced by explaining how around fifteen years ago NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman began talking about Israelis and Palestinians planning for “divorce“… ironically, in refuting Friedman, Mr. Avishai struck a very Friedman-esque note,
“Palestine and Israel together will be nodes in a global network, and they will be nodes in a regional network, and what we need to start talking about is integration. If you start ticking off all the jurisdictions that states have for the purpose of creating an economy — telecommunications bandwidth, water resources, currency, labor migration, airspace, health care and disease control, roads and bridges, also defense — there’s no jurisdiction that the State of Israel is going to be able to exercise in the future without a very deep cooperation with the Palestinian State and Jordan…
…obviously, both sides are trying to preserve the poignancy of the national (and) cultural life, and are trying to preserve the distinction through political apparatus; obviously that’s the reason for a two-state solution when all other reasons fall away.
But 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.”
Finally, from a moral and spiritual perspective, it is incumbent upon the United States to help stop the human suffering on all sides due to an impasse for which we are at least partially responsible. Israelis and Palestinians are both traumatized in different ways and feel like their backs are up against the wall. President Obama has a unique capacity to offer a hopeful vision that transcends the wreckage of the past, like his speech in Philadelphia on race relations or in Cairo. The hope of a new day in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians is now needed more than ever.
Ami Ayalon, past Knesset member, retired Israeli Admiral and former head of Shin Bet (Israeli FBI), gave hope to stakeholders frustrated by the continuing conflict. He said civic and advocacy groups have more impact on Israeli national security and foreign policy than the Foreign Affairs committee of the Israeli Knesset, which he had served on. The message being, J Street is in a place of real influence.
Having experts like Ayalon speak to Americans on the necessity for a negotiated breakthrough for the sake of Israel’s survival will do much for building the political momentum required to move this mountain. President Obama needs to address the Israelis personally, leading with his heart and the sound motives of security, safety and human rights for all. If the ground is prepared thoroughly by Special Envoy George Mitchell and the successful influence of groups like J Street, the path may indeed be freed of past obstacles to peace, leading to the dawn of a new day, a new state of Palestine and a new sense of Zionism, securing Eretz Israel for generations to come.