It appears that J-Street is doing something that has never before happened in the history of American involvement with trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is flummoxing the Israeli government. And this is very unfortunate, indeed unnecessary. It started with Ambassador Oren's refusal to speak at J-Street's founding conference, a gathering of 1500 pro-Israel, pro-peace Jews in Washington, DC last fall. He has subsequently been working to dial back his rhetoric and now speaks of resolving the conflict between himself and J-Street. In fact, he had some very positive remarks about J-Street in his recent address to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) plenum in Dallas. However, his bosses in Jerusalem ratcheted up the animosity last week when Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon apparently called for a "boycott" of a United States Congressional delegation that J-Street brought to the region. After speaking to the Conference of Presidents and telling them that J-Street "should stop calling itself pro-Israel," Ayalon attempted, if only behind the scenes, to prevent Israeli government officials from meeting with the five House members. Yet, the delegation met with several members of the Knesset, defense officials, party leaders and opposition leaders. After releasing a statement calling for "clarification" from the Foreign Ministry, the delegation received an apology and a meeting. The Israeli press was alive with rumors and unsubstantiated stories about this issue, including some that attacked J-Street for lying about the whole affair. What is going on here? Why is there such unease between a newly minted, rising pro-Israel powerhouse in Washington DC, bringing Jews together around the cause of a negotiated two-state solution, and segments of the Israeli government? What is the fear?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the more maddening issues in our world today. In no other conflict that I can think of in modern times do the parties know exactly how the conflict needs to end, yet face such a seemingly impossible road to getting to the end game. J-Street understands that a negotiated, fair and equitable two-state solution, one that sees a secure and prosperous State of Israel living alongside a contiguous, secure and prosperous State of Palestine, is the only way to end this conflict. And in fact, subsequent Israeli and American administrations have accepted this as the goal. What was once a pariah idea, the two-state solution, is now commonplace. So, why the rancor? One reason, I believe, is because J-Street is willing to push members of Congress and the Obama Administration to not sit on its hands while the parties refuse to negotiate; namely, J-Street is saying, "Talk about a two-state solution is not enough. What are you willing to do, right now, to help bring it about?" Action scares those in power, especially when it is easier to sit by and blame one side or the other for inaction and maintain the status quo. J-Street does not seek to undermine Israel; to the contrary, its policies and leadership seek to bolster the hope for achieving peace and ending the conflict by educating members of Congress to the complexities and nuances involved, pushing the Obama Administration to work harder on negotiations, and by bringing a more balanced and healthy dialogue to university campuses around the country. All of these efforts can only enhance the possibilities for peace. Why the Israeli government is not embracing these efforts is odd, to say the least.
Another matter appears to be the disconnect between the Prime Minister's office and the Foreign Minister's office. This disconnect had been warned of since Prime Minister Netanyahu, a seasoned and polished political operative, one who has since come further around to the idea of a two-state solution and the value of strong diplomacy, installed a right-wing ideologue, Avigdor Lieberman, as Foreign Minister. There was a strong premonition that this would be a problem in working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with all other aspects of Israeli foreign policy, especially if the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister were not on the same page and acting in direct opposition to one another. It is not coincidence that both Ambassador Oren and the matter of the recent Congressional delegation stem from the Office of Foreign Ministry.
Lastly, what we are facing today seems to be a new war, and not one from an outside enemy. While this intractable conflict continues to fester with no end in sight; while Iran and Israel continue to saber rattle at each other with nuclear threats; while Gilad Shalit remains held captive; while Gaza remains blockaded and under siege; with the demographics working against a possibility of a two-state solution being viable; through all of this, an internal battle is taking shape among the Jewish people, both in Israel and America. J-Street's executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, put it best when he expressed concern, upon returning from the Congressional delegation, "about the increasing inability of some in Israel and in the US to distinguish between criticism of or disagreement with Israeli policy and outright hostility to the state itself." We cannot afford an internal war when the external threats are so great. When every statement of concern about Israeli government policy is decried as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, we begin to lose credibility. When you love someone, care about them deeply, it is actually negligent behavior in the relationship to stand idly by when dangerous actions are being pursued. The ideological divide between those who see Israel as indefensible and those who see Israel as unassailable is being bridged by J-Street, an organization created and led by Zionists who care about the future of Israel, as they attempt to forge a middle ground with a policy of strong support of Israel and healthy criticism of Israeli policy. This is why they are gaining strength in Washington and raising fears in Jerusalem. The majority of American Jews have always supported a two-state solution and using our power to help bring it about. This majority now has a voice in J-Street.
On my bookshelves, both at home and in my office, I have dozens of books on the Middle East. I have books that outline the history of this conflict; I have books that outline the solutions to this conflict; I have books that analyze the books that describe the solutions and history. Jews like to write and read, analyze and debate, which is an exciting part of our heritage. However, now is the time to put the books aside and write the next chapter of our history with serious action. J-Street is leading the way toward that future. Now we need the Obama Administration to toughen up and lead the parties back from the brink. We know that hatred and incitement, division, terror and calls for destruction are the ills of the Palestinians; we know that settlements, the occupation and the siege of Gaza are the ills of the Israelis. We have the medicine to cure these ills, if only the sick parties would choose to swallow it. Nobody likes the taste of medicine, but we sure do like the results it brings. Let all people who care about the health and well being of Israelis and Palestinians come together now and work for the cure.