The Word on the J Street

Social protest and the Arab Peace Initiative both find a happy home at the left-wing group's annual conference.

Some 2,500 participants is a good number for a conference - it's the third largest Jewish gathering in the United States this year. The attendance of Israel's Deputy Ambassador Baruch Binah was notable, despite the fact that his speech focused mainly on lecturing the audience in the style of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the differences between the American and Israeli communities.

"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", he said.

Jordanian Ambassador Dr. Alia Hatoug-Bouran and  J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Natasha Mozgovaya

J Street still hasn't changed conversation on Israel in a significant way - not in the administration and not on Capitol Hill. It has managed, however, to bring some changes to the conversation on Israel within the Jewish community, providing young people disenchanted with the Jewish establishment's talking points with a political home they can feel comfortable with.

Many conference participants were excited by stories of the Israeli social protest that one of its leaders, Stav Shaffir, brought them. Cottage cheese prices, "divide and conquer" politics, fight for social justice - these are issues that resonate well with Jews committed to tikkun olam.

"People here in the U.S. are excited to see the young generation in Israel getting involved - and at J Street you see the young American Jews who are getting involved," she told me. "And you know what we hear from people we meet in the U.S.? 'We feel we have the same problems.'"

What's the solution?

J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told Haaretz he hoped to hear from the Obama administration a message about greater involvement in the peace process. "If he [Obama] wants to be serious about peace, he'll have to become personally engaged and, yes, visit Israel," he said. "We'll keep pushing them."

Ben-Ami knows the struggle to make room for pro-peace discourse in Congress is an uphill struggle. Meanwhile, AIPAC's work is providing tangible results: This week the Pentagon announced it will ask Congress for additional funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile-interception system. Congress signaled its willingness to provide it even before the formal request, with a bill presented several days earlier. Iron Dome, argue Congress members who support it, is good for peace - it saves lives and discourages terrorist organizations. But with the possibility of the battery coming soon to protect Tel Aviv, the solution is not to put batteries everywhere to intercept rockets fired on every city.

So what is the solution? J Street concluded its conference by lobbying congressmen on Capitol Hill on the urgency of the two-state solution, and with a panel discussion dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Arab Peace Initiative. The participants agreed, the fact that only Olmert acknowledged its existence was a huge missed opportunity.

Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan and a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, said that no Arab country had unsubscribed from this initiative. "But it can't have an indefinite lifetime", he said. "King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is the last Arab leader of any stature that can keep it alive and he is 88 years old. The other problem is the Arab uprising. Can you imagine any Arab country worried about it when they have their own problems to deal with?"

New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman said he doesn't think Obama has made serious efforts toward peace, although a call for a settlement freeze, presented widely as a mistake, was in his opinion "a good signal."

Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the initiative was underestimated because people outside the Arab world don't realize what a bitter pill it was for the Arabs to take. The Palestinian story, he added, is the ultimate story of loss of control of history, of others defining you. He called the current Congress a "major obstacle for the forward movement" and urged J Street "to make sure to elect people that want peace to happen." Israel, he said, "is not going to survive if it does not agree to the two-state solution, and fast. Israel is not doing Arabs any favor with it."

I asked Dr. Alia Hatoug-Bouran, the Jordanian Ambassador to the United States, what she thinks about the Arab Peace Initiative. "It is very relevant," she said. "It's the most important issue on the table."

Arab American take: "Before J Street, we had no Jewish partners"

Despite the presence of several Palestinian and Arab speakers, the Arab spring and the situation in Syria received little attention at the J Street conference, surprisingly. But it was much more than any peacenik could expect at the AIPAC or most other Jewish conferences. I asked Zogby, who attended the very first official event of J Street, what does he think about the way the lobby made so far.

"A Congress member today can say: "I can go to J Street" - that's a change. And we have a partner that we didn't have before. Even at the early days of Camp David - there was no Jewish group for us to work with".

- But President Obama still gave his speech at the AIPAC conference.

"Politics is what politics is. But this is something that helps us to move in a different direction. I hope a few years from now, Obama comes to us".

He also thinks the Arab Peace initiative is still relevant "because it still expresses the collective Arab position that they are willing to normalize an exchange for a peace settlement. For the Israeli public that hears from the Israeli Prime-Minister that there is no partner, the Arab peace initiative says: "There is a partner, this is not an existential conflict, this is an issue about borders, about negotiation over the outstanding issues. And once they are resolved - peace, normalization, recognition, trade et cetera will follow. It remains relevant because it sort of holds out the end of the story".

Didn't the Arab spring render it obsolete?

"In the end of 2009, in polls we got between two thirds and three quarters of Arabs still saying they support the two-state solution based on that framework. Now there is a sense of despair and cynicism - still wanting it, but not believing it will ever happen. The Arab spring - we'll see new governments, more open process in some countries, Tunisia is the place where some real change happened, Syria remains unsettled, Egypt changed but I am not quite sure it is going to be as dramatic as people think. But the public opinion now will matter - leaders will need to take into consideration what people think. But the leadership that exists today couldn't have launched this process ten years ago, that made people internalize the idea of the two-state solution. It's not everyone, but it's the majority. Do I think the Palestinians deserve a full open democratic society? Absolutely. But a full open democratic society couldn't get to where Arafat was able to make the decision and lead people. The Arab world is moving beyond the charismatic leadership, but thank goodness, this leadership was able to offer a deal ten years ago. As for the "Arab spring", "Arab winter" - those who had this infantile fantasy that everything is going to be Disneyland - simply have no sense of history. You go from the Arab spring to change, and change is not pretty. If you want pretty, try dictatorship - it's calm and steady. Democracies are messy".

Olmert: "Israelis would accept my deal, even today"

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who visited the US this week made a series of public appearances, and still wouldn’t admit on the record that Israel bombed a Syrian reactor in 2007, despite the fact that two senior Bush Administration officials wrote about it in their biographies. If he had advice for Netanyahu, dealing today with Iran's nuclear program, it would probably be "stop talking about it so much" In 2007, Olmert didn't talk about it. He is obviously not sorry about it either, mentioning that after this "reported strike," the Syrian regime was still willing to negotiate. He is sorry that an agreement with Damascus wasn't reached.  He told reporters at a briefing in Washington that the current situation could have looked totally different for Assad, had he forged peace with Israel.

He is sorry he didn't push further during the operation Cast Lead in Gaza to overthrow the Hamas regime - that would have made a difference too.

As for the peace agreement with the Palestinians, that he failed to finalize too - he stressed that he is sure the Israeli public today would support the same agreement - “had it been presented as an agreement. The Israeli public opinion hasn't shifted to the right - the government shifted to the right."

"Abu-Mazen", he continues, "Didn't reject the plan - he never said yes, but he never said no. He could have said no, the Palestinians never had a problem saying no before. They never said no to me. I think it's time that both sides would rid themselves of some unnecessary prejudices. Abu-Mazen has no secret agenda".