Jeremy Ben-Ami, the leader of the liberal Zionist organization, J Street, attempted to sell John Kerry’s peacemaking efforts at the Jewish Community Center in New Haven on Tuesday night. He told a crowd of 50 people– scarcely one of whom was under 40 and all of whom were warned to be polite– that we are on the verge of a new discussion of the core issues in the conflict that we’ve never had before, and Kerry will force both sides to “confront” compromises.
Ben-Ami suggested that the Israelis won’t be able to accept Kerry’s framework proposal and go on to serious negotiations:
Now it’s possible, I might say likely, that one or both of the parties isn’t going to be able to say yes to the secretary. I would still say that the secretary has pursued the right path.
Ben-Ami hinted that he knew John Kerry’s thinking from conversations with associates of the secretary of state, and maybe Kerry himself. Here were some of his comments:
“Today we are on the verge of seeing whether or not the secretary is going to be able to move this process where it has not gone before. In the coming weeks, the secretary will go further than any American leader has ever gone and been willing to go to lay out an American framework for dealing with the core issues of the conflict, from borders to security, from settlements to refugees, from Jerusalem to water. He intends to take on all the contentious issues. He’s even going to offer a formula for addressing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of a Jewish connection to the land of Israel and perhaps even bring in compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries…
“He’s going to put together a package for the sides… At that point a critical moment of truth for the two-state solution is at hand. The secretary will put these parameters on the table, and he’s going to ask the parties to say yes or no to continuing serious negotiations over the remainder of this year to reach a deal based on those parameters.
“[Even if Kerry fails, I think] it is better to pose the question, and let the argument begin in both societies over whether or not they are willing to accept the compromises and sacrifices necessary than spending all the time engaged in a blame game over whether one side or the other was willing to come in the first place to the table…
“That approach is now fomenting a very serious political argument inside both Israeli and Palestinian societies…. These choices need to be confronted, debated and resolved.
“So over the coming weeks and months, get ready, because I think we’re going to have a front row seat to watch these debates play out, and the outcome is likely not only to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, possibly decades to come, but the shape of the Middle East and the shape of US-Israel relations.”
Ben-Ami then answered the “Ma nishtana” question, Why is Kerry’s plan any different from previous ones that failed? He explained that Kerry did not expect to be secretary of state– Susan Rice was getting that job, till the Benghazi affair—and so he had thought about the peace process in a detached, nonpoliticized way in the years before he ended up in the position. A few things about his approach were different:
“Number one, bring in the Arab countries.” When Yassir Arafat was asked to make the “fundamental compromise” on Jerusalem on behalf of 1 billion Muslims, “the weight of that on one stateless Palestinian who was a freedom fighter and not a global statesman, it was just too much, he didn’t feel that he had the backing of the broader Arab world,” Ben-Ami said. The Arab countries then got involved, and in 2002 put together the Arab Peace Initiative. “For the last ten years that offer has been sitting there, unengaged. And one of the first things Kerry did was to go meet with the Arab League, and got them to re-up their offer. They expanded their principles to include the swaps around land.” And Arab leaders are now engaged every step of the way. When Kerry leaves a meeting with Abbas and Netanyahu, he flies over to meet Arab leaders.
“Issue two, what are the carrots? How do you change the dynamic?” The carrots are, one an extra security package for the Israelis: guarantees by the U.S. for Israel’s security, possible including NATO involvement. And two, an economic investment package for Palestinians in the West Bank. The deal means limited Palestinian sovereignty:
“The security guarantees include the demilitarization of the Palestinian state… The Palestinians have a security force, but they won’t have an army, a navy and an air force.”
“I think the third big difference is frankly also that it is not Arafat. Arafat was a revolutionary leader who could not fully embrace the change that he needed to make in order to make these decisions, Ben-Ami said. Mahmoud Abbas is not charismatic, but he has been engaged in “peace, diplomacy and negotiation” for all his life.
“Getting to yes on this is the culmination of Abbas’s life, whereas leading the revolution was the culmination of Arafat’s life.”
Ben-Ami then said, “A lot of people look at the track record of failure,” and say, “Why bother?” He said, “That’s a terribly self defeating attitude.”
“I agree there’s a lot of failure when I look in the rear view mirror. But we’re driving forward, right– and the future is ahead of us, and to condemn kids and grandchildren and generations to come and continue on this path because of the failures of prior efforts and generations I think is an irresponsible act of leadership…. I understand the failures and I think so does the secretary.”
Ben-Ami was dealing with a rightwing audience, many of whom see him as betraying Israel because he seeks withdrawal from some settlements and portions of East Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders who introduced him repeatedly cautioned the audience to be civil. They were. Though Ben-Ami catered to anti-Arab prejudice when he spoke to the Connecticut audience about the prospect of “sharing”
Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be the capital of the new state of Palestine… You’ve been to Jerusalem, you know where the Arab neighborhoods are and you know where the Jewish neighborhoods are. And really the two people don’t spend a lot of time in each others’ neighborhoods.
The Holy Basin, one square kilometer, will be under some form of international jurisdiction, Ben-Ami said, before quoting Michael Oren or Dennis Ross (both of whom he praised): “Perhaps the answer is to say that the sovereignty over that land is God’s.”
Barring the religious flash or two, Ben-Ami’s presentation was straightforward and largely unemotional. But fear was ever present: the fear that Israel will become a pariah state, the fear that Israel will lose the Zionist dream that his father had fought for, as a member of the Jewish terrorist force, the Irgun. And the talk unleashed some fears on the part of the audience. A liberal Zionist stood to echo Ben-Ami’s warning, saying, We are in danger of losing the Jewish state if we don’t urge the creation of a Palestinian state, and all Jews should regard this as an emergency. Later I chatted with this man, and he expressed concern about the rightwing shift in Israeli society. (When I said that this was the inevitable product of Zionism, and that American Jews have prospered because of the separation of church and state, a lightning bolt sundered the JCC roof, and he shrugged.)
Subsequently in the parking lot, I eavesdropped on a conversation led by a man who identified himself as an official of a Jewish organization. He said his greatest concern was Jews fighting among ourselves. “That is how we lost Jerusalem.” This was presumably a reference to ancient times: We were standing on a largely-wooded ridge in a very nice section of suburban New Haven. But this man fears liberal Zionists coming out against rightwing Zionists, openly, in the sight of non-Jews who will want a say over Jerusalem.
This man also said that even with security guarantees, a Palestinian state was likely to break out in civil war akin to the one in Syria and Iraq. He offered this as an argument for continuing Israeli military occupation. Expect more such arguments in months to come, from the rightwing.
As for leftwing Jewry, it does not exist in this universe. Ben-Ami never referred to non- or anti-Zionists in the Jewish community. As far left as he goes is Peter Beinart, who uses the same white-out.