Jeff Warner, a retired geologist and member of LA Jews for Peace, attended the J Street conference in its entirety last week as an "ambassador" of the new organization (he got five others to register for the conference). More bio at bottom of this piece.
J Street’s first national convention in Washington, DC last week was uplifting and exciting on one hand, but frustrating and disappointing on the other.
The J Street convention was uplifting and exciting because J Street represents a new Jewish voice in Washington that is distinctly more progressive than the established Israel lobby.
Attendance exceeded expectations, showing that there really is a large group of Jewish Americans who are dissatisfied with the traditional Jewish political organizations. They feel unrepresented, and are looking to J Street to represent them. J Street leadership’s goal was 1,000 attendees. From the way registration was going, I guessed they would miss that goal by a significant margin. In fact, over 1,500 people registered – 50% over the goal. That lead to a logistics problem of not enough seating room in plenary and breakout session. Almost every session was standing-room only, even on Tuesday when there were changes to larger rooms. All-in-all J Street handled the unexpectedly large crowd quite well.
Progressive Jewish Americans who support a Palestinian state alongside Israel flocked to J Street as an alternative to the main-line Jewish organizations that form the core of the Israeli lobby. These people are fed-up with groups like AIPAC and ADL that lobby Congress and the Administration in their names, for a right-wing, Likud position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they don’t support.
J Street is on the Washington political map. With better than expected attendance, J Street broke the Israel lobby lock on Jewish access to American politics. The keynote address was given by General James Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor. Jones said “…you can be sure that this Administration will be represented at all other future J Street conferences." Besides Jones, about 148 Congress persons signed-on to the J Street host committee, about 45 attended the conventions dinner, and six made presentations from the podium. Quite a good showing by an organization in existence for only 18 months old.
J Street is also on the Israeli political maps. The conference was attended by eleven present and former Knesset members led by Haim Ramon (former Vice-Prime Minister under Ehud Olmert) and Ami Ayalon (former head of Shin Bet).
The J Street convention was frustrating and disappointing because J Street is not as progressive as most of the attendees wanted, and is not that distinct a voice to counter the established Israeli lobby.
Conference attendees were clearly to the left of J Street leadership as judged by the choice of presenters and J Street’s public statements on the Gaza war, the Goldstone Report, and other issues. The J Street base is left-leaning; not so J Street leadership. This was apparent by which statements from the podium elicited cheers, and which did not. The audience sat silent at calls for sanctions on Iran and that the Goldstone report was biased, and even booed when Goldstone was personally attacked. In contrast, the audience cheered wildly at calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, for human rights for all, and for a strong American hand in achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Street’s political position was not a surprise. J Street was formed as a political amalgamation of Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. As such, J Street has the politics of those groups – namely that: (1) a two-state solution is in Israel’s interest, (2) the occupation is a barrier to peace, (3) a Palestinian state must be economically viable, and (4) never seriously criticize Israel. This puts J Street just to the left of the Israel lobby (which itself has a range of positions).
Attendees by and large agreed with points 1, 2, and 3, but a large fraction of attendees reject point 4. The difference on willingness to criticize Israel reflects the prime concern of the speakers and the attendees. Many speakers appear driven by their Zionism, and openly expressed their “love of Israel.” In contrast, many in the audience appear driven by their Jewish ethic of universal justice, and are offended by the occupation in all its manifestations including settlements expropriating Palestinian land, Palestinian house demolitions, the siege of Gaza, and the killing of nearly 1,000 civilians during the Gaza bombardment. I heard the occupation described as “an Israel boot on the Palestinian neck.”
Completely missing from the above discussion, and from the conference itself, were Jewish and semi-Jewish peace groups like Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace, Americans Jews for a Just Peace, and U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
The difference between J Street leadership and conference attendees is illustrated by different reactions to a resolution just introduced into the House of Representatives – H.Res.-867 – that aims to kill and bury the Goldstone report. The official J Street statement (link to www.jstreet.org) does not oppose the resolution, although it calls for it to be modified. Many attendees would find the resolution offensive and want it killed. The resolution was not a talking point on the last day of the conference when half the attendees went to Capitol Hill to lobby their Congressmen.
There was a general acceptance at the conference that the Israel-Palestine peace process is in grid-lock, and that any forward progress relies on an active United States role. Many speakers called on the Obama Administration to formally propose a detailed peace plan. The idea is that neither party “can say no” to an American sponsored. plan. A distinction is made between an American peace plan (which cannot be denied), and the American push for a settlement freeze (that was rejected by Israel).
The only attempt to tie U.S. policy in Israel-Palestine into the broader U.S. goals in the Middle East focused on Iran. The assertion was made, and generally accepted, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will make it easier to contain Iran. There was no talk of containing terrorism or assuring the free flow of oil.
J Street is here to stay. But I am not optimistic that it will enable a significant breakthrough towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The fact is that Israeli leadership across the Israeli political spectrum is not ready for a Palestinian state that is economically viable and politically sovereign. In spite of Israeli public opinion favoring a two-state solution, Israeli leadership still seems to be working for a greater Israel that includes much of the West Bank. Until that attitude changes, there is no chance of real progress towards a two-state solution.
Many activists believe that the only route to change runs through Washington – that the United States must make its diplomatic, financial, and military support for Israel conditional on Israel making significant progress towards peace, or directly pressure Israel into making concessions for peace. But the J Street position does not support either pressure on Israel, nor reduction in the broad, unconditional United Support for Israel. And without such action, prospects for a change in the Israeli political climate are nil, and the prospects for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations nonexistent.
The United States foreign policy establishment was hardly mentioned during the J Street conference, but it is a major player in developing American policy towards the Israel and Palestine. The foreign policy establishment is concerned with the “strategic interests of the United States,” namely containing terrorism, spreading democracy, and assuring the free flow of oil. To that end they advocate for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea is that as long as the conflict is unresolved, United States‘ ability to pursue its goals in the Middle East is constrained. This idea was enunciated by the Iraq Study Group, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mearsheimer and Walt, and others, and President Obama has said as much several times.
Today the tension between the foreign policy establishment and the Israel lobby, with no significant deviation by J Street, tilts toward the side of the Israeli lobby’s effort to preserve the status quo. But eventually the “price” of unconditional support for Israel will become too great, and there will be a change in American policy. We will see the United States finally become a truly “honest broker,” and the dynamics of Middle East peace will finally change. I hope that does not come too late for a two-state solution.
Warner is active in LA Jews for Peace, Jews for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians, Americans for Peace Now, and Cousins Club of Orange County. He organized street demonstrations against the Israeli siege of Gaza since late 2007, and against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza during the December-January massacre. In 2006 Warner worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding a Palestinian home on the West Bank demolished by Israel. In July Warner was a member of Viva Palestina, a humanitarian mission to Gaza that consisted of 175 Americans.