A New Avenue to Middle East Peace?

Another Bush Legacy
“In allowing the Israelis and Palestinians to have it out on the ground, and not giving them a diplomatic alternative, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives. And the whole edifice of a peace process that began with Henry Kissinger was destroyed.”

—Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA goes to Israel—as he inevitably will in order to shore up Israeli public support for his Middle East peace initiative—J Street can claim some of the credit for making the trip happen. The Jewish “pro Israel, pro peace” advocacy group came of age in late October with its first annual conference in Washington, D.C., and speakers from Israel and the U.S. urged the president to take his brief for a regional peace process directly to Israel, where his approval numbers are in single digits.

Making the conference happen seemed more challenging than getting the president to Israel. Conservative Jews accustomed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s near monopoly on pro-Israel advocacy—and other critics, Jewish and gentile, to the right of AIPAC—created a storm of controversy ahead of the conference.

The online edition of William Kristol’s Weekly Standard led a pack of rabid critics. Its editor Michael Goldfarb kept a running count of members of Congress retreating from the event. Goldfarb seemed to be working both sides of his press pass at the conference; at one point I saw him being interviewed about San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, one of Goldfarb’s obsessions.

Among Goldfarb’s posts was “J Street’s Muslim Money”—an attack on the organization for accepting contributions from a few individual Arabs. Another defended Hagee as a friend of Israel maligned by J Street. Hagee, in fact, is a Christian extremist so toxic that John McCain walked away from his endorsement during the 2008 presidential campaign, on which Goldfarb worked. Hagee’s description of the Roman Catholic Church as the “Great Whore of Babylon,” and Hurricane Katrina as God’s wrath visited on homosexuals in New Orleans, engaged McCain’s gag reflex if not Goldfarb’s.

Goldfarb wasn’t alone in attacking J Street. The Los Angeles chapter of a Jewish advocacy group, StandWithUs, purchased newspaper ads and sent faxes to 160 members of Congress who had endorsed the group, warning that J Street’s views “seem to undermine Israel and its search for peace with security.” Lenny Ben-David, a former AIPAC opposition researcher now living in a West Bank Israeli settlement and lobbying for Turkey and Georgia, cranked out online hit pieces. The Weekly Standard, StandWithUs, Pajamas Media, Commentary, the National Review—the nation’s conservative commentariat all piled on, while Goldfarb, with his ad hominem attacks on J Street’s executive director, seemed to be standing in solidarity with the two goons who turned up at the conference, holding crude signs linking the organization to Nazis.

The vilification campaign took its toll. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said no to the conference, observing that some of J Street’s positions could “impair Israel’s interests.” Israeli Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni sent a remarkably supportive letter, along with her regrets. New York Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand accepted, then unaccepted an invitation to the conference banquet. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was a no-show. And at least ten members of Congress from both parties, who initially agreed to be included on the host committee list, asked that their names be removed.

Yet 140 members of Congress stood down the right-wing intimidation. At 1,500 registered attendees, the conference was oversubscribed. Panelists from Israel’s Knesset, several former Israeli cabinet members and diplomats, and former members of Israel’s security and defense communities provided the imprimatur of official Israel. Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who months earlier had harshly criticized J Street’s position on Gaza, joined Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami at a plenary session. And in a town where the names you list on your speakers’ program determines who you are, General Jim Jones, the White House national security adviser, delivered a keynote address. Jones’s promise that “this administration will be represented at all future J Street conferences,” was a public rite of passage for an organization founded only 18 months ago.

WOODSTOCK JEWS?—What is it about this group that makes the right wing crazy? J Street Executive Director (and founder) Ben-Ami was born in New York. According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, his father was a member of the youth brigade of the Irgun, a militant Zionist organization that fought to create the state of Israel. Ben-Ami also served as a White House deputy domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

Daniel Levy, who serves on J Street’s governing board and did much of the heavy lifting at the conference, was on the Israeli diplomatic team that negotiated the Oslo agreement under Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin and was later a member of the delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in 2001. From an American Jewish or Israeli perspective, these bona fides would seem hard to impeach.

The problem stems from an understandable sensation among conservatives that the ground beneath them has shifted. They invested in George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose lasting contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to strengthen the hand of Hamas. Bush is in Dallas. Cheney is off his meds. And Ben-Ami was in the White House when President Obama met with American Jewish leaders in July. Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, which is far more in tune with the White House than are the Heritage Foundation—and the American Enterprise Institute, which three days before J Street’s D.C. conference held a seminar on the urgency of bombing Iran. So a lot of hard-line Jews must feel shut out.

Part of the American Jewish community brooks no criticism of Israel, and J Street’s leadership is openly critical of some Israeli positions, in particular, West Bank settlements.

Perhaps some of the discontent is generational. M.J. Rosenberg, a former congressional staffer working with J Street, has described the group as “Woodstock Jews,” referring to the age difference in a movement whose leadership came of age after 1969.

Ben-Ami said that one of his goals was to create an Israel advocacy organization that would attract not just the Woodstock generation, but younger Jews removed by one generation or more from the experience of the Holocaust.

It appears that he’s succeeded. J Street has 110,000 supporters, an annual budget of $3 million, and six lobbyists working Israel interests. There is also a political action committee that divided $580,000 among 41 candidates for Congress in the last election cycle. Much of the money was raised online, in small amounts, and most of the candidates were “non-Jewish,” according to the New York Times.

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE?—The larger question that J Street (and other Israel- and Palestinian-advocacy groups) is trying to answer is how to achieve a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and a regional peace agreement with the Arab states. The answer to that question lies in the facts that Dick Cheney and George Bush left on the ground.

Martin Indyk started his career at AIPAC, served as President Bill Clinton’s adviser on Arab-Israeli issues, and later as Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, working closely with Prime Minister Rabin. Even if Indyk is overburdened with a predisposition toward diplomatic engagement, it’s hard to argue with his conclusion that the Bush administration made a grave situation far worse.

As Indyk frames it, Bush compounded the tragedy that began with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, when a peace agreement was in reach. By disengaging from the diplomatic process for seven years to let the parties go at it on the ground, Bush destroyed the fragile architecture of peace negotiations put in place when Henry Kissinger began negotiating a resolution to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was the architecture for which Rabin (and I would add Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) gave his life.

So the post-Bush peace process begins anew, with the leaders of two deeply dysfunctional governments adapting to the architecture that Barack Obama is putting in place. Yet neither Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will begin meaningful negotiations on their own.

“Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is afraid that he won’t be able to survive politically, and not just politically, the long process of negotiations, and therefore is interested in the results and not the process,” said Gadi Batilansky, who was a spokesperson for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “On the other hand, we have an Israeli prime minister who is interested in the process but not in the result. Maybe he doesn’t believe he can survive politically, or maybe not even politically.” (The “not even politically” coda refers to the physical risks both leaders might confront.)

Absent the leadership of the president of the United States, there will be no Middle East peace process. “It’s easy for the Israelis and Palestinians to say ‘no’ to one another,” Batilansky said, “but far more difficult for them to say ‘no’ to Barack Obama.”

Batilansky, like other speakers at the conference, warned that time is running out. “Closing windows” and “ticking clocks” were the metaphors of the moment, whether applied to the urgency of beginning negotiations, Palestinian demographics, the expansion of settlements, or the growing alienation of Israelis from Palestinians.

The Israeli political cycle requires prime ministers to begin running for reelection at the end of their second year in office. By the third year, the political risks and time demanded by peace negotiations are more than they can manage. Netanyahu was elected three weeks after Barack Obama took the oath of office. Netanyahu could begin negotiations now and in two years address the anger of conservatives who anchor his coalition.

There is another reason why Israelis who would have a democratic state that is Jewish in character understand the urgency of beginning a peace process now. It’s not exactly news that the comparative birth rates of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs will result in a state in which Jews are in the minority. A “one-state solution” inexorably leads to an Israel in which a Jewish minority is left either to accept the will of a dominant Arab majority or to rule rather than govern. Ron Pundak, who directs the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, warns that in the absence of a two-state solution Israel will inevitably become a “Spartheid” state—defined by the cold militarism of Sparta and the selective oppression of pre-1990s South Africa. “It is not a state that any of us would want to live in,” Pundak said.

Another issue that fits the ticking clock theme is Iran. Daniel Levy described the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “the gift that keeps on giving to Tehran.” It provides Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a message that resonates in the Arab street, where the rabidly anti-Semitic Persian is more popular than Arab leaders in their own countries.

Iran is one of several issues on which the distance between J Street and the more established pro-Israel organizations is evident.

There was a consensus at the J Street conference that the Iranians cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, or even achieve the “break out” capacity that would allow them to quickly produce one. Yet most, like Hillary Mann Leverett, a former U.S. diplomat who addressed the conference, are committed to the negotiations that Obama has undertaken, with threats of bombing campaigns and even harsh sanctions being held in reserve.

There is also agreement that someone, although not necessarily U.S. or Israeli negotiators, should be talking to Hamas, if for no other reason than because Hamas governs Gaza. And a consensus that the deindustrialization and isolation of Gaza is not in Israel’s interest. (Levy went so far as to describe it as “indecent” as well as ill-advised.)

I heard no one at the J Street conference describing a divine mandate that makes Israel a Jewish state. Just as I would expect to hear no one at an AIPAC or Zionist Organization of America gathering say what Ron Pundak said at the end of one session: “When you leave here, say you are pro Israel, pro peace, and pro Palestine.”

But what most distinguishes this young organization is its investment in the administration of Barack Obama. And the belief that even if time isn’t on his side he has positioned himself to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leadership (and the Arab states) to the negotiating table.

“Don’t take it for granted that an American president makes this a priority,” an impassioned Daniel Levy said. “That on day two [after taking office] a special envoy that comes with the track record of George Mitchell gets appointed. That the president gives us the kind of speech that he gave in Cairo. That at the U.N. General Assembly, in his first speech there, a U.S. president devotes more time and more words to resolving this conflict than to anything else. That [in his remarks] when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the one conflict he mentioned by name was this one. It’s just a little bit premature to lose hope in this president and give him a failing mark.”

Levy picked up the 400-page Geneva Agreement, negotiated by Israeli and Palestinian diplomats independently of their governments to provide a framework for official peace negotiations. “Here is the recipe book,” he said. “All we need is the chef.”

PRE-APOCALYPTIC POSTSCRIPT—Why the controversy about San Antonio televangelist John Hagee? Christian End Times theology holds that Jews must fulfill certain biblical prophecies to make the second coming of Christ occur. Once their mission is complete, all but 144,000 Jews will accept Christ or be eliminated.

Hagee has raised millions of dollars to support projects in Israel, many of them in settlements on the West Bank, which must be occupied by “the ingathering” of Jews before Christ can return. Is Hagee a friend to Israel? I’ve had this discussion with Mort Klein, after a Zionist Organization of America banquet. Klein is the ZOA’s president. He had no problems with the support of Christians who write checks for Israeli causes. I had the same discussion with Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. Saperstein had serious misgivings about motives of End Times Christians.

I have sat through Hagee’s sermons in San Antonio, and find some of his positions on Jews and Israel unsettling, to say the least. He has speculated that the Anti-Christ will be an apostate Jew, or a homosexual and at least part Jewish—and German.

Hagee’s awkward interpretation to his congregation, of God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, seems to have Hitler doing God’s will: “‘Behold, I will send for many fishers. And after will I send for many hunters. And they, the hunters, shall hunt them.’ That would be the Jews [who are hunted], from every mountain and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks. If that doesn’t describe what Hitler did in the Holocaust, you can’t see that.”

That might lead some to ask why Hagee sees the extermination of six million Jews as God’s will.