When the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street launched in 2008, it was big news. Coupled with a new presidential administration pledging sustained engagement on Israel/Palestine, the thought many had was that this was the moment a lasting peace deal could be forged between the Israelis and Palestinians.
J Street’s “No. 1 agenda item,” as founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami told the New York Times in September 2009, was to “do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back.” J Street’s strategy of advocating “for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution” seemed on mark, given that President Barack Obama told the world in Cairo in June 2009 that he intended to “personally pursue” the two-state solution.
The goal of a two-state solution, in which Israel and a Palestinian state exist side-by-side, remains J Street’s message as around 2,400 activists gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend for the group’s second annual conference. “It could not be more urgent for the administration to seize the initiative right now on peace and a two-state solution,” said J Street spokesman Isaac Luria.
But what happens when that goal, and the strategy of strong American leadership on the issue, seems out of reach? For some on the left, the current political situation means that J Street needs to adjust to the reality of fading prospects for a two-state solution.
While it’s clear, as blogger M.J. Rosenberg put it, that J Street has “opened up room” in the debate over Israel, progressive critics have called for new strategies to pressure Israel, such as the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Indeed, even some of J Street’s own constituents are frustrated with the Obama administration and are exploring more forceful ways to change Israeli behavior.
For instance, the liberal Zionist organization Meretz USA, which has close ties to J Street, recently came out in favor of a boycott of West Bank settlements. Others at the conference, like Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, echoed Meretz USA’s stance.
“The question of boycott, for me, is very simple,” said Sfard. “I cannot imagine a cent of my money being given to settlement products or any activity that is enhancing the settlement projects. For me it is like actively supporting illegal or immoral abuse of others’ rights.”
The Obama administration’s weak stance on the issue has become even more obvious in light of recent events. The administration backed down in the face of the pro-Israel lobby and a right-wing Israeli government that keeps issuing tenders for new illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip remains under a debilitating siege imposed by Israel. The release by Al Jazeera of the “Palestine Papers,” nearly 1,700 leaked documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, shows that despite numerous Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem, the right of return and more, the Israeli government refused to forge a deal.
The Obama administration’s ambivalence to the continued entrenchment of settlements on Palestinian land–a problem many consider to be the biggest obstacle to a two-state solution–reached new heights with the Feb. 18 U.S. veto of a UN resolution that condemned settlements as “illegal.”
“On this issue, Obama has really dropped the ball in a big way,” said Rosenberg, a former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He may have set the cause back with that veto, and that veto will reverberate in the progressive camp for a long time.”
It was the first veto since Obama took office, and was in stark contrast to past administration calls for Israel to stop settlement expansion. J Street came out against a U.S. veto. There are about 500,000 settlers living on confiscated land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the settlements, along with the separation barrier, have created a disjointed Palestinian landscape that makes a Palestinian state look less and less likely.
“All this talk about the two-state solution is largely meaningless. There is not going to be a two-state solution,” said John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, in a recent Institute for Middle East Understanding press briefing. “The Israelis are in the driver’s seat here and they want to incorporate all of the West Bank, and effectively the Gaza Strip, into a greater Israel.”
For progressive critics of J Street, the veto, and continued settlement expansion, proves that alternative strategies need to be used to reach a real agreement—be it a one-state or two-state solution—rather than a mirage agreement that creates a Palestinian bantustan. “[J Street] put all their eggs into the Obama basket, and what we’re getting is bupkes,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace.
“It’s a very clarifying moment for where we are in that it really shows us that just relying on governments, and specifically the U.S., as the vehicle for change in Israeli policy, is not going to do it,” Vilkomerson said. “That’s why we need to rely on civil society and tools like boycott, divestment and sanctions in order to get any real kind of change.”
But J Street continues to stick to its strategy of advocating for American leadership on the issue, and has come out against the BDS movement.
“J Street is focused on the policy process and political process,” said J Street president Ben-Ami during a press briefing at the conference.
J Street’s Luria insisted that the next step should be “an American initiative that lays out American ideas.” Boycott tactics, said Luria, are a “drop in the bucket compared to what an American-led peace could look like.”
The group’s anti-boycott stance, and its faith in American diplomatic leadership, reflects what blogger Richard Silverstein called a political tack “down the middle between right and left.”
As human rights lawyer Sfard put it, American pressure—currently non-existent–is not what worries the Israeli leadership, but rather the growing non-violent resistance movement in Israel and Palestine. “Traditional politics failed, party politics failed…In the last five years there has been a growing movement of civil resistance to the occupation in Palestinian villages and rural areas. This is a growing trend, and I have to say, it scares the hell out of the Israeli administration much more than the American pressure.”
That reality, though, hasn’t penetrated J Street’s leadership, though elements of its base get it.
The group’s continued push for an American-led proposal seems ever more distant, and all the more unlikely for that to materialize given that presidential elections are approaching. And the “Palestine Papers,” as former director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Robert Grenier wrote in Al Jazeera, revealed that the “process for a two-state solution is essentially over.”
The “Palestine Papers” and the UN veto show that the “Obama administration is absolutely not willing to use any of the sticks it has at its disposal and is only willing to use carrots with Israel,” said Jewish Voice for Peace’s Vilkomerson. “History has shown that these sorts of carrots do not get Israel to change its behavior.”
This article originally appeared in Alternet.
Zoe Zenowich is a freelance journalist and the managing editor of the Excelsior, a Brooklyn College student newspaper. Follow her on Twitter.