On J Street’s second day, I attended the main morning plenary session, “History Before Our Eyes: Broader Implications of Movements in the Arab World.” The panelists were Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist; Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace and an architect of the original Oslo agreement; and Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. The chair was Ambassador Samuel Lewis, a former diplomat and former head of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
As I expected, this particular session would prove to be most revealing in what it showed about the approach J Street has towards critical issues. As the J Street program book announced the panel, “the politics of the Arab world could be the game-changer in 2011.” The first speaker, Robert Serry, set the tone by arguing that it was the job of the UN to promote fundamental change in the Arab world, because the “tide of history cannot be stopped; nor can it be hijacked by radical movements.” The best way to attain this end, he argued, was to help create viable democratic institutions by pushing forward the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority, Serry said, was developing solid reforms, and they had to be met by similar actions by Israel, especially that of rolling back Israel’s settlements. Palestinian statehood, Serry argued, was not sustainable unless Israel gave up Palestinian land it held in its own hands. Hebron, he said as an example, needed more land to expand and to create viable living arrangements for its Palestinian population. In making their demands known, he told the audience, Palestinians had to make a “root-and-branch” commitment to non-violence. And supporters of the Palestinians’ goals, a group he clearly thought included J Street, had to urge that Israel end its blockade of Gaza. Israel, he said, could not punish Palestinian children because of its own dispute with Hamas.
There must be, he ended, no expansion by Israel of existing settlements.
Next to speak was Ron Pundak, who began by saying that he might be a minority of one in Israel, but he would nevertheless present his ideas, however little they might be representative of the organization to which he was now speaking.
In Israel, Pundak complained, no discussion of what was really necessary was taking place. The “right-wing government,” as he called Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu’s administration, was “obsessed with the past, and saw any criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Israel.” Bibi, he went on, “has nothing to say and uses hard words,” but the substance of what he says is virtually nothing.
Today’s Israeli regime, Pundak said, was jeopardizing the Zionist dream he and others grew up with. If Israel did not pursue a real and honest peace — which he evidently thought it was not doing — later on there would no Israeli prime minister around to accept a genuine offer of peace when it might be made. To great applause, Pundak said the millions of Palestinians living in the area had to be citizens of their own state, a policy he argued the majorities of Israelis favor. But without real leadership, he warned, there could never be such an outcome.
Turning to the vital issue of Iran, Pundak actually argued that Iran was being used as a pretext by those who did not want a Palestinian state to stop trying to attain peace. The Iranians were indeed trying to gain a nuclear capability, Pundak said, but they were not intent on annihilating Israel. Clearly, the words of Ahmadinejad meant nothing to him, nor did the worries of prominent Israelis like the historian Benny Morris. “Israel,” Pundak said, “can live with a nuclear Iran and it must not base its policies on a worst-case scenario.” Thus, it should not be looking for new enemies as an excuse not to make peace. In Pundak’s vision, clearly, Israel had no real enemies, and it was only the Netanyahu government who pronounced that they did. For example, he said that the Israeli government was now “creating Turkey as a future new enemy,” ignoring the growing Islamic orientation and new alliances of the Erdogan government. Such an Israeli government, Pundak said, could not reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians. It was the responsibility of Americans, therefore, to push the Obama administration to favor this course.
Next in line was Mona Eltahawy, the talented and outspoken Egyptian journalist who has been a presence on most television news programs the past few weeks. She was proud and jubilant about the uprisings throughout the Arab world. That in Libya, she emphasized, was not a civil war as many called it; rather, it was a war by Gaddafi against the people of Libya. Moreover, she said it was not about Israel, but rather about the desire of freedom and dignity by the Arab people. “It is,” she said to loud and boisterous applause, “about us for a change.”
All of these rebellions, Eltahawy said, were not supposed to take place because Arabs are supposed to be passive. “But,” she said, “we did it and are doing it. Nobody is being left unaffected.” She proceeded to list all the countries that have moved to rebellion since Mubarak fell, and argued that the Twitter revolution was preparing for more in the coming days. Turning again to Israel, she told the audience that at Tel Aviv University, she spoke with a new generation of Arab students who were born after 1979. Arab students there — a group of 15 — told her to tell the Israelis “we will hate them until they end the occupation and treat Palestinians with dignity.” This too got a huge ovation from the J Street audience.