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J Street Day 3: The Dennis Ross Speech, the J Street Response, and My Final Thoughts about J Street

The discussants:

At this point, Ross left, leaving the announced commentators to have to respond without Ross there to answer their questions and deal with their criticism. Clearly, the administration had told him that this was to be avoided. All of the respondents expressed their frustration and dissatisfaction at having to discuss Ross’s views without his presence.

The discussants were Bernard Avishai, whose recent article I discussed last week, and which was dissected carefully by his old friend, journalist Sol Stern;  Roger Cohen, editorial writer and former foreign editor at The New York Times;  and Daniel Levy, a leading leftist critic of Israel who was a former negotiator for Israel at the Taba peace conference and is now in residence at the New American Foundation in Washington, DC.

Avishai began by essentially reiterating the points in his Times magazine article, and pleading with the administration to put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to pick up where former PM Olmert of Israel and Abbas left off, when, according to him, they essentially had reached an agreement that would have brought peace to Israel.

He would be happier, he said, if the administration showed they were able to produce “more of Dr. Kissinger and less of Dr. Phil.” The U.S. had to be a party to a solution, and that Ross served five different administrations clearly was not enough. The elements of a deal were well known, and had been attained at Taba, Geneva, and Oslo. The administration had to embrace them publicly,  and had to organize world opinion on behalf of these goals, winning both the Arab and the Israeli street. By adopting these principles, Avishai argued, they could create an organized body of opinion that supported them, creating international momentum and pressure on all sides to adopt the old Olmert-Abbas plan, as he called it. Avishai did not address what Stern and I asked him in private conversation; i.e., what would he do about the sticking point of the so-called Palestinian refugees, and their continued demand for accepting “the right of return”? Avishai thinks this is a moot point; others believe -- as the former chief negotiator Saeb Erekat always has said -- that no Palestinian leader would abandon that right. This, of course, means no agreement.

Next, Daniel Levy won thunderous applause by reiterating what clearly is J Street’s position: “18 years after Oslo,” Levy said, “the occupation and the settlements cannot continue, and without this being settled, there can be no negotiations.” His clear implication was that Israel had to do this first, and only then could negotiations take place. In other words, the Palestinian demands had to be addressed before there could be any negotiations, a position that no sound Israeli government could ever accept.

Controversial Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Levy said, was “the bastard child of a demographic analysis,” and proof that the occupation had to end. “The Palestinians,” he stated -- again to a huge ovation -- “could not have rights without an end to the occupation.” The U.S. should not indulge Israel in holding onto the fantasy that the country can continue as it has.

To date, he argued, the U.S. had maintained the cold peace in the Middle East that was based on a relationship with the respective military, which kept dictators like Mubarak in power in order to placate Israel. Our purpose should not be to “arrange the surrender of the Palestinians,” but to seize the opportunity now to help build a new school of “realists” in Israel who understand -- although they are not J Street peacniks -- that Israel must immediately get out of the territories and end the occupation. The U.S. had to give Israel a wake-up call, rather than indulge in its fantasies, and make Israel’s life harder by forcing its people to deal with the real facts. There had to be, he said, an end to irredentist claims, and Israel had to change its view of what measures gave it real security. The issue was that of accepting the broad legitimacy of the Palestinians' demands, including their demand for a free Gaza.

Finally, Roger Cohen added his two cents to the get tough with Israel panel. The question was he put it, “whether a new Middle East will be met by an Old Israel that does not engage in new thinking.” The truth was contrary to the grim scenarios laid out by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the man to whom all at J Street was the major sworn enemy of the forces working for peace in the Middle East. Contrary to Israel’s PM, Cohen said, there was not a jihadist waiting to come out of ever Arab in the Middle East. This is not Iran 1979, he argued; the Arabs wanted nothing but dignity and freedom, not Jihad.

Hence, Israel’s siege mentality had to be lifted. The societies against which the Arabs rebelled were rotten wood, in which leaders turned their own countries into personal fiefdoms in order to enrich themselves. The question to ask is why our country supported them for so long. Now, he argued, we must align ourselves with the new democracies which support our values. Of course, Israel is such a nation, and yet, Cohen, like the others, was most critical of its policies.

Obama, he said, was doing a good job, but needed to take things further. He had to see the hope and seize the moment, helping Israelis to make the psychological breakthrough they had to take to make peace. Obama, he said, should come to Israel, go to Jerusalem, and explain to Israelis that the US had it security at heart, but needed more from the US than military technology. He referred skeptically to Dennis Ross’s notation that the US gave Israel the iron dome system to defer rocket attacks. Israel needed something else than military aid; it needed to be pushed forward by the US so it could move towards peace. His assumption, as most of those at J Street, was that the impediments to peace came all from Israel. Israel, he said, had to show the Palestinians that it would take steps to allow them to move forward also.

Avishai then added that the US coddled Greater Israel and did not do what it could to allow Global Israel to show its face too. The U.S. had to take a stand, making it easier for future leaders like Tsipi Livnk to successfully take a stand. Daniel Levy then added and reiterated his main point: Israel had to withdraw from the territories, and allow the Palestinians to create their own state.

My final thoughts on J Street:

J Street, despite its proclamations, does not allow much diversity in its conference presentations. While in smaller concurrent sessions they did list speakers who appeared on panels in which they were outnumbered, but clearly had positions most of J Street disagreed with, on the large plenary sessions, the speakers were all with one point of view: Israel must take the steps to peace, and meet Palestinian demands before negotiations.

The Kadima speakers had previously announced they would speak out against what they had learned was J Street’s one-sided positions, but at their panel, they failed to do what they had said earlier. Instead, they had a somewhat interesting discussion on Israeli politics, the prospects of Labor Party renewal, and their own backgrounds.

What J Streeters call their “pro-peace” and “pro-Israel” community, for all I could see, was in essence a movement to protest Israeli policies supported by the mainstream in Israel. Instead, while they clearly think they are pro-Israel, what they defend is the Israel of their imaginations---a mythical country in which Israel alone take steps to peace, which they assume will be met by Palestinian and Arab friendship, and in which hostility will cease, and Israelis will finally live in peace with their neighbors.

It is an understandable desire, but one which ignores reality: the hostility of many of its neighbors to the very idea of a Jewish State; the growth of radical Islam and jihadist movements pledged to destroy not only Israel, but all Jews; the impact of decades of anti-Semitic and Nazi views among the leaders of Palestinian and Arab societies, carried on since the days of the Grand Mufti and his Nazi allies.

The group also believes that a viable Israel must be fashioned as it wants---a left-wing “progressive” Israel, much like that favored by the founders’ generation and the age of the pre-eminence not only of Labor, but of leftist groups like Mapam and Hashomer Hatzair, remnants of which still exist and are listed as participants in the J Street program. They hark back to the good old days of a Marxist-Leninist segment among Israel’s leadership, of the old era in which the Haganah was led by Moshe Sneh, the founder of Israel’s Communist Party, and the predecessors of the Likud were an isolated group condemned by Israel’s leaders like  Ben-Gurion and others.

Instead of the socialist Israel of their dreams, the reality they face is that of a technocratic, modern state, that has developed a modern society based on capitalism, as the socialist institutions of old like the kibbutz have faded into oblivion, and remains as a ghost of the earlier days of Israel.

No wonder that the only statements to excite the crowd were those most critical of Israel, those condemning Prime Minister Netanyahu and the current Israeli government, and those friendly to the Palestinian cause, which many of the J Street members see as their own. They continue to issue the refrain that they are pro-Israel, yet have panels like the one on the Boycott,Divestment and Sanctions  movement (I was not able to attend this one) in which Bernie Avishai  will speak to oppose BDS on tactical grounds- having already written about this in The Nation a long time ago, while others on the panel favor the tactic as the best means to force Israel to do what they think is correct. Any real pro-Israel organization would never have a panel like this in the first place, and would instead have a session devoted to fighting against this movement and instructing defenders of Israel on how best to counter it. Why would any pro-Israel group even debate BDS as a reasonable position for those who want Israel to exist to consider? That a group purporting to defend Israel even has such a panel only reveals its desire to legitimize and bring into their tent hard-line opponents of the Jewish state.

Finally, despite Jeremy Ben-Ami’s claims about how strong they are, how many more members of Congress came and are supporting them, there was little proof of this assertion at the meeting. No notice was given of the prominent former supporters who have left their ranks. That they can mount this year’s meeting in a larger venue, with a fancy program book thrown in, reflects only their ability to raise money from people like George Soros and other mysterious funders. It does not, as far as I can see, reflect any real strength.

I notice in their program that one of the sponsoring groups is called “The National Left,” which notes that it supports “the Israeli left in the race of dwindling elector success of left-wing parties in recent decades.” J Street does not stop to ask itself why this is the case; perhaps, just perhaps, some of its members will come to understand the reality exists because most Israelis have learned through hard times that the program and assumptions of the Israeli left have led nowhere, and they have had enough.

I suspect that in the United States, Jews who defend Israel will come to feel the same about J Street as the Israeli citizens have come to feel about their own left-wing.

(Click here for my look at the Day One of J Street's conference and here for Day Two.)