Highlights of J Street Conference

Highlights of J Street Conference

Although merely five years old, J Street celebrated its coming of age as a serious national player with appearances by Vice President Biden, a number of members of Congress (including an unscheduled one by Nancy Pelosi), three leaders of Israeli political parties (including one current government minister–Tzipi Livni), and Members of Knesset, including one from Likud and another from Shas, plus a representative of the Arab League.   

Biden was warmly received because of who he is and his upbeat avuncular personality, but his speech (although not terrible) might have been more appropriate for AIPAC.  Similarly, Livni’s opening night address included a defense of the “moral” behavior of Israeli soldiers that was jarring to most in her audience, who know that the IDF’s conduct in the Palestinian territories is obtrusive and harmful for ordinary Palestinians.  Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich also included some slightly discordant words on Iran.  Alone among the plenary headliners, Meretz head Zehava Galon spoke in a way that completely accorded with prevailing sentiments in the hall. 

The guest of honor at its gala dinner was Martin Indyk, Secretary of State Kerry’s point person at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Folks around me were encouraged by what he said or hinted at, with some enthusing that Indyk’s emphatic point that all issues were “on the table” indicates that something significant is in the offing.  My feeling is that the proof’s in the pudding, and that unless Netanyahu is willing to risk a break with far right-wing elements within his own party and coalition, nothing good will develop.  Most, possibly all opposition parties would support Netanyahu if he moves forward on peace, even at the likely cost of a split within Likud and other coalition parties.
My fantasy scenario for the conference — which might have convinced me — was if Biden or Indyk had brought Netanyahu (then in DC) to say hello.  Almost regardless of what Netanyahu might have said (as long as he was friendly), the symbolism would have been unmistakeable.  But this didn’t happen.  One thing that did is that erstwhile hardliner Tzachi Hanegbi (a Likud MK who is the son of Geula Cohen, the legendary Stern Gang and right-wing firebrand) has turned into a moderate.

There were 2,800 participants (a new record), including 900 young people in attendance through J Street U.  Eight hundred activists lobbied Congress on “Advocacy Day,” which happened to coincide with the government shutdown, Tuesday, October 1.   As before, J Street continued to host numerous kindred American non-profit groups and Israeli human rights NGOs, many of which manned tables displaying their literature.  (I attended as a representative of the Jewish Labor Committee, alongside its associate director, Arieh Lebowitz.)  As usual, the meat of the conference were the informative panel discussions, mostly meeting in simultaneous sessions (unfortunately), but all being recorded for later Web access.  
Rank & file attendees noted with some dismay, that a couple of news articles exaggerated applause in the audience for a right of return for Palestinians to what is now Israel.  J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami clearly stated, at both the outset and the conclusion of the conference, that refugees would be returning to the new Palestinian state but not to Israel, in a two-state peace agreement (although I’m sure that Ben-Ami knows that a small token number of returnees is a possibility).  Still, in a plenary panel that included two Palestinians, I would have appreciated a little pushback to the call for Israel to acknowledge its role in the Nakba, in the humanitarian disaster that the independence war of 1948 created with the exile of 750,000 Palestinians. 
I’ve long felt that such an admission of guilt might be okay politically if the Palestinian side concurrently acknowledged that its leadership at the time had erred in violently rejecting the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 to partition the Palestine Mandate into separate majority Jewish and Arab states, linked by an economic union and an international status for Jerusalem.  Instead, the Palestinians immediately launched a military offensive that attempted to destroy the Palestinian-Jewish community, which within months became a more general war with forces invading from several neighboring Arab countries.  There is no likelihood that there would have been a Palestinian refugee problem if not for this war, which the Arab side initiated.  Barring such mutual recognition, which would be politically difficult for both Israelis and Palestinians today, it’s best to leave this recitation of history to historians.
Yet our pro-Israel/pro-peace camp should more fully articulate the profound truth that the creation of a Jewish state was not just to fulfill the “Zionist dream,” as the usual formulation goes. It was not a shallow or sentimental nationalist goal, but a humanitarian necessity for a people suffering centuries of bigotry and persecution, culminating in the Nazi genocide.  
I am sure that most of the concurrent sessions were well worth attending and look forward to viewing some of them online in due course.  I was very taken with one in particular on the Arab Peace Initiative, including the participation of a representative of the Arab League, who clearly indicated that regional buy-in for a two-state solution was in the offing if Israel and the Palestinians were to move toward an agreement.  The API was initially known as the Saudi Peace Initiative in 2002 and has been restated twice since, including most recently in April, indicating flexibility on borders and settlements and promising Israel normalized relations with virtually all Arab and Islamic countries.  An Israeli participant on that panel, the head of a coalition known as the Israeli Peace Initiative, was enormously encouraging on the API’s significance, but also noted that the Arab League needs to be more energetic in reaching out to Israelis to convince them that it’s a genuine peace offer. I dare say that if the API had been forcefully articulated at the time of the Camp David Summit in 2000, there might have been a breakthrough to peace at that time, rather than the devastating violence of the Second Intifada.
Another session that I enjoyed was on “How Israel Can Represent All Its Citizens While Staying True to Its Jewish Character.” Without going into too much detail (read this Open Zion article for more), it was a fascinating discussion among Amal Elsana Alhjooj (a Bedouin-Israeli activist), Bernard Avishai, and Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, a Talmudic scholar and advocate of secular Jewish culture.  Ms. Alhjooj emphasized the need for her as an Arab and Muslim to feel at home in the country of her birth.  There was some disagreement on how Israel may be legitimately defined by its Jewish majority, with Avishai being a minimalist.  He  would like to see Israel’s Law of Return radically amended to privilege entry (but not immediate citizenship) for Jews fleeing antisemtiic persecution.  (His 2008 book is entitled The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last.) 
Avishai has become a favorite commentator of mine.  Perhaps in this particular panel, he was too detached from the issues of identity and belonging that his co-panelists focused upon, but I was also fascinated by another session in which Avishai went into detail on the “confederal” structures required for a two-state solution to work.  As with the original UN partition plan, there would need to be something of an economic union, along with international arrangements for a Jerusalem that houses two separate sovereign entities yet is administered as one city.  He made the stunning observation that Israel and the Palestinian territories, above the sparsely-populated Negev, is a territory about equal in area to metropolitan Los Angeles, with approximately 12 million people almost equally divided between Israelis and Palestinians, and split geographically about equally between Green Line Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.      
By | 2013-10-03T15:29:00-04:00 October 3rd, 2013|Blog|0 Comments

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