The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Failure of the U.S. Peace Organizations

The prospects for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have never been worse, primarily because of the rightward shift of the Israeli government and public opinion and, secondarily, because of the end of any expectations that the United States would help "save Israel from itself."

Is there any hope at all? The best chance for peace would be a sea-change within Israeli public opinion. However, Israeli peace groups have not succeeded in convincing mainstream opinion in their country that Israel's policies are both a moral and a long-term security disaster. For this reason, many on the Israeli left have long hoped that the U.S. would bring serious pressures to bear on their government to agree to a just and viable peace settlement.

However, the Obama administration's abandonment of its mild initial efforts to persuade Israel to change its policies has now dashed those hopes: in the absence of a major shift in public and congressional attitudes, there is no chance of change in the traditional US policies of near-unconditional support of Israel. Consequently, the primary function of the leading U.S. peace groups -- Americans for Peace Now (APN) and, more recently, J Street -- must be to persuade American opinion that those traditional policies are detrimental to the best interests of Israel and, for that matter, of the U.S. itself.

Even those who deny the existence of an Israel lobby that dominates U.S. policies towards Israel are not likely to deny that the Jewish community is the most important sector of American public opinion on all issues pertaining to Israel. Consequently, domestic politics ensures that there will be no change in American government policies in the absence of strong Jewish support for sustained pressures on Israel. And if they are to have any chance of success, those pressures must include making U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military assistance of Israel conditional on major changes in its policies.

While there has been increased dissent within the U.S. Jewish community over Israel's policies, the dominant majority still supports them -- even despite the much-criticized Israeli attack on Gaza last year and the subsequent Goldstone report (hereafter referred to as Gaza/Goldstone). In light of mainstream opinion in this country, it is undeniable that APN and J Street confront a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, an open acknowledgment of the true depth of Israel's moral collapse and even its capability of recognizing and acting on its rational self-interest might backfire: if the peace groups move too far to the left of the mainstream they may well be seen as illegitimate and lose even more influence. On the other hand, the situation is desperate, requiring a more forthright strategy, whatever the risks: if the peace groups continue to be too timid in their criticisms of Israeli policies and the complicity of the United States in them, they will become increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant.

In any case, the failure of the peace groups is not simply a strategic one but one of understanding and analysis as well: an inability to fully confront the overwhelming evidence that demolishes the most cherished mythologies in Israel and the American Jewish community.

Americans for Peace Now
The two most important challenges facing APN and J Street are how to respond to the Gaza/Goldstone issues and whether to urge the American government to bring serious pressures to bear on Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians and agree to the creation of a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state.

Following the lead of its parent organization in Israel, Peace Now, APN is highly critical of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and it has issued several statements supporting the Obama administration's early efforts to convince Israel to end their continuing expansion. However, APN has been weak to the point of irrelevance or even incoherence on Gaza/Goldstone and on whether U.S. aid to Israel should be conditioned on changes in Israeli policies.

Gaza/Goldstone

Either because it can't make up its mind on the issue or because it wants to avoid antagonizing both the critics and defenders of the Israeli attack on Gaza, APN has wobbled over Gaza/Goldstone: it has sought a kind of middle ground, not joining in the chorus that has been attacking Goldstone personally, but going no further than calling on Israel to conduct an internal investigation of the charges that Israel committed war crimes.

To be sure, the Goldstone Commission itself called on Israel to first conduct its own internal investigation before the UN should consider turning the matter over to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions. However, the Commission was required by international legal procedures to follow that process, even though it clearly had little or no expectation that an Israeli investigation would be meaningful: in several places in the Commission's report it pointedly noted that "there are serious doubts about the willingness of Israel to carry out genuine investigations in an impartial, prompt and effective way."

In any case, whatever the required procedures or, perhaps, the political considerations taken into account by the Goldstone Commission, it is vacuous to believe that the truth has yet to be discovered or that it will be by means of an internal Israeli investigation. Thus, there is nothing to prevent independent peace groups from drawing the obvious conclusion: the cumulative evidence is overwhelming that Israel has been guilty of criminal behavior against the Palestinians in general and, in particular, the residents of Gaza. (For a full discussion of the evidence see here and here.)

None of the official policy statements listed on the APN website deal directly with the Israeli attack on Gaza or the Goldstone report. However, one of them (undated, but clearly after the attack), "The Gaza-Hamas Challenge," deals with some of the central issues. On the one hand, the statement repeats the usual mantra: "Israel has the right to protect its citizens from attacks and threats." On the other hand, the statement warns Israel of the consequences of the use of military force: it may bring about "short-term tactical gains," but military force "alone" can't eliminate the problem and "risks playing into the hands of extremists."

What might supplement military force "alone?" Perhaps for Israel to simply end its occupation and oppression of the Palestinians? No, APN won't go that far. The organization's preferred course is the establishment of "a meaningful political process...[and]negotiations to deal with the core issues." Negotiations with whom -- perhaps Hamas in Gaza as well as the Palestinian authority in the West Bank? Well, the statement concludes, while there must be "a new, serious policy toward Hamas...it need not, necessarily, mean engaging Hamas directly."

Officially, as an organization, APN has had little to say about the Goldstone report, other than a two sentence statement urging Israel, "in its [own] interests," to undertake an internal investigation of the "alleged violations of human rights and international law that may have taken place in the context of the Gaza war, including those documented in the...Goldstone Report."

However, APN regularly publishes political commentary by Yossi Alpher, who in effect though not officially is the organization's primary spokesman on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Alpher, a former high Mossad official and senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and still a pillar of the Israeli military/intelligence establishment, has -- unfortunately -- had plenty to say about the Gaza/Goldstone issue.

At least until the Israeli attack on Gaza and then the Goldstone report, Alpher was essentially a centrist in the spectrum of Israeli public opinion, maybe even a little left of center: he worried about the settlements, the overall Israeli occupation, and sometimes the Israeli methods -- but only because they were "counterproductive," meaning that they had undesirable consequences for Israel , rather than because of their morally unconscionable consequences for the Palestinians.

For example, last January Alpher denounced "the folly of collectively punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the sins of Hamas....Starving masses of Palestinians is a counter-productive strategy." . And a month later he wrote that "economic warfare against Gaza...has failed totally and can even be deemed counterproductive," because the Gazans have not turned against Hamas and Israel's international standing has been seriously undermined.

Recently Alpher has moved considerably to the right, especially on the Gaza/Goldstone issue. Indeed, it sometimes appears that he is simply losing control, reacting with apparent rage and downright bizarre arguments to the charges of Israeli war crimes. For example, shortly after the end of the Israeli attack on Gaza, Alpher wrote that "Israel should not be accused of war crimes because it took...unusually thorough measures during the war to alleviate humanitarian suffering on the part of the Palestinian people." Yes, he conceded, there had been some "inevitable lacunae" perhaps even some "excesses," but ones which were "proportional" [whatever that might mean] and "constituted the exception." Consequently, "the war crimes accusations against Israel can only be seen as a kind of selective witch hunt waged by religious and ideological extremists, political opportunists and Israel-bashers."

Then came the Goldstone report. Two months ago, Alpher summed up his views on Gaza and Goldstone in his regular column for with APN. From the strategic point of view, he said, the consequences of the war had been "a decidedly mixed bag." On the one hand, it did add to Israel's "deterrence," as evidenced by the marked drop in Hamas attacks in the last year which, along with the fact that during the war there were few Israeli military or civilian casualties, had made the war "far more tolerable for the Israeli public." On the other hand, Alpher conceded, the large numbers of "enemy" civilian casualties had "radically exacerbated...the [international] drive to delegitimize Israel -- a drive that the Goldstone report, probably unintentionally, played into." (emphasis added)

So long as its de facto chief political analyst is Yossi Alpher, APN can provide no guidance to those who think that the moral issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be taken seriously and analyzed coherently.

U.S. Pressures?
Throughout its history, APN has adamantly opposed any US pressures on Israel to bring about a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the organization has recently issued a new statement on the aid issue, interestingly titled "APN to Obama: Time to Play Hardball, For the Sake of Peace." For the first time, APN appears to suggest that the U.S. should use pressure -- to be sure, against "both parties" -- in its efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even states that "the US must not sit by while Israel continues further down a self-destructive path."

A strong statement indeed -- but it is immediately followed by a section revealingly entitled "Changing Our Tone." After recommending that the U.S. should "adopt a tough tone and use tough language, in public and private...and sharply criticize the intransigence and delaying tactics by the parties," the statement quickly adds, "This is not a call for the US to threaten aid to Israel...."

Perhaps it is too much to ask APN to stop treating the Israelis and Palestinians as presumably equally responsible "parties" to a "conflict," but it should not be too much to ask that its policy recommendations have some real teeth in it. A number of comments on the APN's website made the point that Israel had been ignoring US "language" and "tone" for many years, so that by taking U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support "off the table," the organization was "still playing softball."

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strong>J Street
J. Street was formed in 2007 in order to actively lobby on behalf of those American Jews who do not wish their views to be represented by AIPAC and other rightwing Jewish groups that constitute the "Israel lobby." After a promising start, J Street has been a disappointment, for it has been even weaker than APN on the two key recent issues, Gaza/Goldstone and aid to Israel. Indeed, on these issues it has not differed all that much from AIPAC, calling into question its very purpose.

After the Goldstone report was released and then criticized by the Obama administration and attacked in Congress, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder and leader, issued a statement calling for the U.S. government "to make every effort to oppose and defeat the one-sided and biased" UN resolutions that would refer the report to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions. That apparently satisfied the Netanyahu administration, for Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who had been strongly critical of J Street, then praised the organization.

No doubt Oren would also praise J Street for its position on U.S. aid to Israel. Its official policy position states that "American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge, is an important anchor for a peace process based on providing Israel with the confidence and assurance to move forward on a solution based on land for peace." In an Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Ben-Ami elaborated: it was "absolutely essential" that the "special relationship" with Israel must continue, that Israel should always have military superiority in the region, and that therefore "military aid should not be on the table." He even added: "Those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the 'Israel lobby.' J Street is very happy with these achievements...and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years."

The kindest explanation of these Ben-Ami statements is that they are an attempt to defuse rightwing criticism, as is suggested by his gratuitous remark to Goldberg that "I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us...because I would characterize J Street as the mainstream of the American Jewish community." That may well be so, but the views of mainstream American Jewry on Israel are a big part of the problem, not the solution. So what then is the point of J Street?

It is true that a more critical and vigorous dissent on the part of APN and J Street risks backfiring, and there might be something to be said for a strategy that was only a little to the left of the consensus -- but only providing it was working. But it isn't working: mainstream Jewish opinion is still uncritical of Israeli policies and the Obama administration is ineffectual, leaving the worst Israeli government in decades free to do its worst. Consequently, APN and J Street are becoming irrelevant at precisely the time they are most needed: for regional peace, for justice to the Palestinians, for what remains of Jewish honor and morality, and for the future of Israeli democracy itself.