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The J Street Response

Ronald Radosh

On J Street’s third day, the long awaited speech by Dennis Ross opened the day, at a large plenary that, this time, had major press attendance. If anyone hoped that Ross would say anything other than the usual State Department boilerplate, they must have been bitterly disappointed. Nevertheless, even Ross’s tepid speech seemed to be too much for the majority of the J Street attendees, who evidently thought it was too pro-Israel. The whole purpose of his presence there was made clear by Morton Halperin, who introduced Ross by telling the audience that the Obama administration had promised that as long as President Obama is in office, someone from his administration would attend their national conferences. In that regard, it almost didn’t matter what he said; all that was required was that he, or someone else from the administration, was there. The purpose was to legitimize J Street as kosher. But since the organization is to the left of the administration, it allows the Obama team to depict themselves as in the center, and as friends of Israel, and not echoes of J Street.

In his presentation, which clocked in at little over half an hour, Ross began by talking about the Middle East and Egypt, without any mention of Israel or the Palestinians. The area, he said, was undergoing a remarkable transformation, in which a few months seemed like an eternity. Some governments like Mubarak’s fell, while in Libya, the leaders were taking a “desperate and irresponsible response to legitimate demands.” We must, Ross said, think of the Middle East in new ways, since “the world is changing.” He then quoted Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton, from past statements. These could have easily been found from old press clippings, and of course, were not necessary to repeat. His purpose, it seems, was to make it appear that the Obama team was on top of things and prescient, rather than what was actually the case: having to respond to developments about which they were caught by surprise.

“The status quo,” Ross went on, “is not sustainable.” Dissent could not be stifled, and the old tactics used by dictators could not be carried on any more. There had to be openness for political space in Egypt. Mubarak tried to silence opposition, he said, and failed. The rebellions started when police broke into an internet café, took out a blogger critic, and then murdered him. A web space built in memoriam soon had half a million readers, due to the Google executive in Egypt who got worldwide fame for his role in starting up the rebellion.

No one, Ross noted, predicted how fast events would move. The tyrant Mubarak thought that change would be gradual because of the level of repression, and would not be overnight. But when dissent is not allowed, they found out that frustration that was pent up would soon explode. Ross was gratified to find that at the square, Muslims and Christians alike prayed together, in harmony because of their joint desire to be rid of their oppressors. The Obama administration, he claimed, had told Mubarak from the beginning that he had to open up his system and lift Egypt’s emergency law that had been intact for decades. “Unfortunately,” Ross said, “Mubarak chose not to heed our warnings.” Again, Ross’s intent was to make the Obama administration seem on top of things, and to make it clear that it was not their fault Mubarak did not listen to them.

Now, the United States favored a broad outreach to all in Egypt, and stood for a negotiated transition. This was a delicate phase, and the U.S. had to reassign its aid to Egypt to be used for help in creating a democratic transition and recovery. “Now,” he said, “is not a time to cut aid to Egypt,” since the stakes are enormous in the region. Ross applauded what he called the “professionalism” of the military, and its decision to safeguard the population. The U.S., he noted, saws the military as a source of stability in this transition period.

The goal now is to carry out the transition to peacetime rule by civilians. The U.S., he stressed, had excellent ties to Egypt’s military that would be continued. They must learn that “repression does not pay.” That meant credible reform and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel that the military always had supported. He was glad to cite as a positive sign the decision of the rulers of Bahrain to engage in a national dialogue, as well as Algeria’s decision to lift its nineteen-year-old emergency law. These steps were “credible” measures on the way to reformed societies. Those who use violence, Ross said, must stop immediately. His comments reminded me of nothing less than Rodney King’s plaintiff cry, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Ross then assured the audience that he and his colleagues regularly met at the State Department, and had study sessions where they looked at the different areas and focused on how to help the Middle East achieve reform. State, it seemed, was just another think tank in which they sat around studying things. “We have,” he assured everyone, “close and ongoing contact with the regional players.”

Ross praised the UN’s condemnation of Libya, and its urging that the regime be brought before the International Criminal Court. Egypt, he said, had broken the circle of isolation. Finally, turning to what he had not mentioned before — Israel — Ross said they had to go beyond the cold peace Egypt had with Israel in the past, and he warned that if change did not keep on developing, only the extremists would benefit.

The U.S., he said, “has an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.” This blanket statement received only a smattering of applause, as most of J Street sat silent. Ross noted that the United States gave Israel the Iron Dome anti-rocket system which Israel used to protect itself against rocket attacks from its enemies. Israel, he said, had to be strong given the changes in the region, and he warned that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians became more and more intractable as time passed. Thus our “efforts to promote peace are ongoing and intense.”

Continuing on the topic, Ross said that the clock was ticking, and that a two-state solution that met the needs of both sides had to be adopted quickly. Israel faced the demographic clock that would make it irrelevant and that challenged the “Zionist dream of building a Jewish and a democratic state.” Second, younger leaders were emerging, and they would no longer accept an enduring occupation by Israel of Palestinian land, and thus the hope for peace would fade. Leaders had to emerge who saw peace as a real possibility, and who would accept co-existence of both Palestinians and Israelis.

The region needed leaders who were pragmatists, rather than rejectionists, and who accepted the national aspirations of both people. There could be no reform without peace, and continued conflict would interfere with the process of reform. In the ’90s, he said, Shimon Peres had spoken of building a new era of cooperation, and now decades later than opportunity had to be seized. “Reform andpeace,” Ross said, “go hand in hand.”

Turning to Iran, Ross offered no new insights, instead choosing again to quote words of Hillary Clinton and President Obama. The administration, he said, was “keeping its eye on the ball in Iran,” which one would hope is certainly the case. If Iran did not show it was stopping a nuclear buildup, pressure would be increased. “We remain determined,” Ross said, “that Iran not get nuclear weapons.” He said nothing, however, about any military options being kept on the table, simply repeating instead that “we will not be deflected from that goal.”

At the end of the speech, a short dialogue between Halperin and Ross took place. Halperin asked if there should be a new peace initiative. Ross said any such action had to be defended and supported by all parties, and again cited a recent speech by Secretary Clinton. Each side, he said, had to work in parallel directions. He cautioned that unilateral moves, such as the Palestinian announcement that they would announce creation of a state on their own, were counter-productive, since such moves would not produce an agreement that would work. Both sides, he said, had to have their needs addressed through negotiations.

Turing to the Palestinian authority, Ross praise both Abbas and Fayyad for making a serious effort to create a government that was not corrupt and was helping the West Bank develop. There was, he said, a dramatic transformation of the Palestinian public in its attitude towards their own leaders. Ross did not address what everyone listening knows, which is that from all accounts, the support these leaders have is still rather minimal.

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.

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