The liberal Zionist group J Street is pulling out all the stops in support of the U.S.-led peace process in Israel/Palestine. Last night, the organization, which in recent years has increasingly garnered establishment support, held their latest town hall gathering in New York City featuring Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY); former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon; and Matt Nosanchuk, the White House liaison to the Jewish community.
The lobby group has embarked on a million dollar campaign to bolster Secretary of State John Kerry’s quest to help establish a Palestinian state.
“We are so fortunate to have a secretary of state in John Kerry and a president in Barack Obama who couldn’t be more deeply committed to reaching an end to this conflict,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, to a crowd of over 200 gathered in the New School’s Tishman auditorium. Watch the full event here:
Displaying J Street’s full integration into the Democratic Party establishment, staffers who work for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clark were on hand. Ben-Ami also praised Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the negotiations, and told the crowd to prepare to support Kerry’s framework agreement to keep talks going, reportedly set to be released by the end of April.
The centerpiece of J Street’s “2 Campaign” are a series of town hall meetings featuring prominent Israeli former officials members to make the case for why Kerry’s efforts need support–and need it now. The main message is that disaster–support for a one-state solution and international isolation–awaits if Kerry fails, and that the survival of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state depends on a two-state solution.
But the devil is in the details when it comes to what Kerry is pushing for: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and no large-scale refugee return. J Street’s position on the state’s Jewish character is that Israel should be recognized as “the homeland for the Jewish people without diminishing the rights of minorities who are citizens of the state.”
J Street also advocates, as Kerry does, for “land swaps” between Israel and a future Palestine so that the majority of settlers could stay where they are. While the group doesn’t detail which settlements they want to preserve, some settlements around Jerusalem–like Ma’ale Adumim–impede freedom of movement for Palestinians going from the West Bank to East Jerusalem. And in the past, Ben-Ami has said he envisions a peace agreement that would see Israel retain “major settlement blocs”–which could spell doom for the viability of a Palestinian state.
In New York City last night, Ben-Ami was host to a slick, well-organized gathering complete with a video presentation on support for a two-state solution, posters and petitions to send to elected officials asking them to sign onto a House resolution in support of Kerry’s efforts.
Ben-Ami mostly played cheerleader for Kerry without getting too deep into the weeds as to what specific positions–the language formula for Israel being recognized as a Jewish state, how many refugees could symbolically return, and what settlements to dismantle–his group supports. But J Street’s full-throated support for Kerry, and what their chosen stars of the night had to say, was telling.
Nadler, perhaps the most prominent J Street supporter in Congress, raised the specter of a one-state solution if Kerry’s initiative fails. “What will we do otherwise when the Palestinian leadership stops demanding a separate state and instead, as some are beginning to advocate for already, as simply to be permitted to vote. How do we oppose a demand for one person, one vote?” Nadler asked.
Nadler came out forcefully against Palestinian refugee rights, while also saying that settlers should be able to live in a state of Palestine without Israeli army protection if the Palestinian Authority agreed to do so. “There’s no reason why Jews should not live in any country they want to, including the Palestinian state,” the Congressman said. But when it came to Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 and their descendants, the Palestinian state should suffice, he said. And Nadler and Ayalon also expressed support for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Hamas and Gaza–the besieged territory that has been largely ignored during discussions of the peace process–came up during the Q and A. Ayalon was frank about why Hamas was elected: Fatah corruption and the perception that Israel only responds to violence. Both Ayalon and Nadler expressed hope that a peace agreement would weaken Hamas’ power.
“Hopefully, Hamas would no longer control the territory after a while,” said Nadler. Nosanchuk, the White House official, displayed the paucity of fresh thinking in the Obama administration when he simply restated the U.S. position on Hamas: they’re a terrorist group who won’t be involved in negotiations unless they renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements. There was no discussion about how to integrate Gaza into a Palestinian state when the territories are split both geographically and politically–a policy first begun by Israel and exacerbated by Palestinian politics and U.S. backing for the attempted Fatah coup in 2007.
Unremarked upon was what J Street would do if Kerry failed. It would be a major blow to J Street and liberal Zionism, especially since Kerry and Obama have warned that this may be the last chance to forge a two-state solution. If the peace talks fail, Israel would likely face growing isolation and an energized boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Since J Street has thrown its chips into Kerry’s efforts, they’d be left out in the cold while BDS and calls for a one-state solution grow.