J Street's second annual conference - Natasha Mozgovaya
Participants at J Street's second annual conference in Washington. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday at the J Street Gala in Washington that Israel has a partner in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for peace negotiations.

"Abu-Mazen (Abbas) wants peace with Israel. It may not be the same peace we want, but that's why we negotiate," Olmert told hundreds of U.S. Jews.

On Tuesday, following two and a half days of intensive debates and mingling, about 700 attendants of the leftist J Street lobby's annual conference will crowd Capitol Hill in an effort to deliver their message to 225 Congress offices.

"The main message is about the urgency of the two-states solution", J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told Haaretz, adding that despite the fact that the number of J Street congressional meetings this year remained pretty much the same as last year, he does not see Congress as a "lost cause" for "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying. "I think a large portion of Congress understands this issue well, they want to hear from us - and we just need to give them political space to say it out loudly."

In his speech, Olmert spoke in length about the prospects of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process - and his own peace plan, which is considered to be the most far-reaching proposal to the Palestinians so far but failed, or did not come to fruition, as the former prime minister spent months as a lame-duck premier under investigation for corruption charges.

"Prospects of making peace aren’t exclusively on the side of the State of Israel," Olmert told J Street. "When we try to look at the entire picture, no one should relieve the Palestinians from their responsibilities. I might receive a standing ovation from you for saying we are guilty. But I spent more time in meetings with Palestinians - I met with Abu-Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) 36 times, for hours each time. I don't know if any other prime minister did that to discuss one thing: the two-state solution.

"There is one thing to say: there is a partner," continued Olmert." Abu-Mazen never said he supports terror, not even when (former Palestinian President Yasser) Arafat was in charge. Don't tell me there is no partner. There is a partner. Abu-Mazen wants peace with Israel. It may not be the same peace we want, but that's why we negotiate. And I don't need Abu-Mazen to make declarations on the nature of the State of Israel. When there will be a Palestinian state, there will be Jewish democratic state of Israel, and that's it."

Olmert said it was hard for him to offer his peace plan to Abbas. "It was heartbreaking. And I said to Abu-Mazen, "It breaks my heart." It was hard to sit in front of the president of the Palestinians and say, "There should be no sovereignty over the Temple Mount - not yours and not ours." Don't applaud; cry with me. For a Jew to offer this is possible only if you reach an inevitable conclusion that to secure an independent democratic Jewish state, you have to reach this conclusion." Olmert said there will be an agreement, based on 1967 lines with mutual swaps.

"Unfortunately, the Palestinians never said yes to this plan. I pray to God that the leadership of the Jewish people will have the courage needed in order to depart from the dogmas of the past into the challenges of the future, accept it and move forward. As an Israeli, I won't tell you: go to your government so that your government will tell the government of Israel to do something. It's our interest to move forward. Time is running out for us; not for them."

Maen Rashid Areikat, head of the General Mission of PLO in the U.S., also attended Monday’s J Street Gala.

The Israeli Embassy, which ignored last year's gathering, delivered this year Deputy Ambassador Baruch Binah, a veteran diplomat, who arrived at Washington only recently. Binah started very openly, admitting he has only been on the job for two months and that this was his first public appearance in the U.S. But soon after, he started lecturing the crowd in a style resembling that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mentioning the prophets, the holocaust and the threats Israel is facing.

"Nobody is perfect, I know what needs to be fixed in our society, I personally attempt some corrections every four years when I cast my vote," Binah said. "But, the young and energetic country we are, shouldn't forget lessons of history. [Those lessons] shouldn't shackle us, but guide us."

Binah reminded the audience that the relations between Israel and the U.S. Jewry "are of utmost importance," but nonetheless must be guided by "principles that will ensure our partnership."

And then, the reproach came. "Unlike your secure existence at these happy shores, at our borders there are missiles and mayhem. Unlike you, sometimes we have to make decisions of life and death. We welcome your opinion, but we must pay the ultimate price. We have no margins of error. We need you to stand with us."

Binah also spoke of the countries that underwent an Arab Spring. "We wish them well," he said, but reminded that Israel needs to be careful in a changing environment. He assured the audience the Israeli government is committed to peace with the Palestinians - but called them "rejecters of peace."

"While we cling to a quest for peace, we have to be careful. The proof of the pudding is in the eating - and we are fed with anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli slogans as if nothing has changed. The negotiating table was repeatedly removed or cut in flames of terror," said Binah.

Binah reminded J Street activists that they are "not just exercising free speech," but trying to influence the legislative agenda of the U.S., urging them to be balanced. "If you show them (Congressmen) checkpoints, make sure you show them the grief of the families of victims of terror. Show them the aliya from Ethiopia. I urge you to strive for balance. We appreciate your opposing BDS and your activity on campuses. I hope and trust you won't oppose again a veto of a resolution condemning settlements."

Binah was greeted with a polite applause.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, who spoke next, reminded the audience that the lobby was established to express positions of those Jews who didn't think Israeli security and Palestinians rights were mutually exclusive. "We found our voice," he exclaimed.

Olmert, a special guest of the J Street Gala, spoke next, opening his remarks by saying the presence of an official representative of the State of Israel is an historical landmark in the life of the Jewish community in the United States.

"Maybe not every one of you agreed with everything Mr. Binah said (laughter in the crowd) - but everything is in the family. The fact that the government decided to send him is the most important thing. Divisions are natural. J Street is a legitimate organization that is dedicated to the well-being of Israel,” he said.

Olmert went on to discuss Iran, saying he agrees with those who think Israel cannot the country becoming nuclear. "No other country that possesses nuclear weapons talks about the liquidation of the State of Israel as a primary objective, except for Iran. To disengage Iran from the international banking system is the first step, but no options should be ruled out. Israel also has to build capacities to deal with this situation in the event that we have to secure the existence of the State of Israel - as a last resort, not the first one." As these words were uttered an activists in the crowd shouted "No war!"

Talking about the Arab Spring, the former prime minister described it as "a process," adding, "We should follow it with great hope and care, particularly in those countries that made peace with Israel. Egypt is an important country for the security and future of the state of Israel. We pray and hope to build friendly and peaceful relations with Egypt."

Read this article in Hebrew.