The other day I was asked if the existence of Israel Policy Forum "really makes a difference."
My interlocutor went on: "I would not expect you to have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is not something Americans can do. But I would think you and your allies would have cut into the power of the right-wingers by now. But they still seem to own Capitol Hill, almost as if you guys didn't exist."
It's a good question, but it is also one that I had no problem answering.
That is because I believe that were it not for IPF and our partners-- J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tsedek, Churches for Middle East Peace, The Arab-American Institute, and the American Task Force on Palestine -- the peace process would have died during the past eight years simply because the United States would have allowed it to.
In fact, it is astonishing that the diplomatic process survived the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000, 9/11, and the eight-year neoconservative-dominated Bush-Cheney administration.
Without us, the horrific violence of the suicide bombings might have convinced both the American government and the pro-Israel community that peace with the Palestinians was an unattainable goal.
After all, as soon as the terror started, the propagandists of the right put out the line that the Palestinians never intended to reach an agreement with Israel. They asserted that the Palestinians had been offered a viable state at Camp David and flat-out turned it down, and that the seven-year Oslo process had been a disaster for Israel.
This was the line pushed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who pressured President Clinton to join him in putting the blame exclusively on the Palestinians, something Clinton does not believe now and may not have believed then.
And it was Ariel Sharon's line, too. He opposed Oslo from the first and wanted it to fail. His premeditated and provocative walk on the Temple Mount in the summer of 2000 was his own contribution to that failure, not his last either.
It was up to IPF, and our allies, to explain to both the United States government and to the pro-Israel community that the official line on Oslo and Camp David was simply that: a line. Yitzhak Rabin's initiative was not a failure. It was not a mistake. It was an opportunity that was blown, and not by just one side.
In fact, the last three years of Oslo-after Israel and the PLO worked together to thwart terror attacks with the assistance of the CIA-were the best in Israel's history.
They were not just safe. Israel was an entirely different place between 1997 and 2000. Anyone who spent time there during the period remembers the feeling of security both inside the country and out. It's hard to believe but back in the Oslo days the roads from Israel to West Bank cities like Jericho, Kalkiyah, and Ramallah were packed with bargain-seeking Israelis. Palestinians were thrilled to sell their wares to Israelis, and Israelis were happy to buy.
My religious (and very right-wing) relatives from Petach Tikva could not believe how friendly the locals in Jericho were when they packed a Passover lunch, drove over to Jericho, and ate their matzo and gefilte fish under a giant Yasir Arafat billboard. Israel in 1999 was as close to realizing the dreams of its founders as it has ever been in its history. It's been downhill ever since, despite what the right-which prefers a ghetto to a normal country-claims.
IPF's mission was to explain what went wrong in 2000 and to assert that-although the terror was horrific and indefensible-so was nonstop expansion of settlements (which Palestinians view as tantamount to terror). And we had to convey that, despite the propaganda, the Palestinians had not been offered a viable, contiguous state at Camp David. Additionally, we had to explain that, despite everything, the two sides came closer to an agreement at Taba in 2001 than ever before (or since).
Our efforts at rebutting the right helped keep the peace process alive, despite the prevailing myths and the advent of an administration that had barely any interest in the peace process.
It wasn't easy.
Consider this. In 2000, the President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, delivered his most significant address on Israeli-Palestinian issues at an IPF event.
But for the next eight years, neocons in the vice president's office, at the Pentagon, and at the National Security Council worked overtime to ensure that Clinton's successor was exposed only to their bellicose and utterly one-sided approach.
And then there was 9/11, which the same group struggled to link to the Palestinians just as they successfully linked it to Iraq, knowing full well that they were simply "fixing the facts." Talk about your seven lean years; well, we had eight.
But we kept pushing and, with the help of our friends in Congress, made sure that the peace process was not allowed to die. Essentially, we kept it on life support until the neocons had safely passed from the scene.
That happened this past November with the election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden-two senators with whom we had close ties and who both believe in the two-state solution and in America's role in achieving it.
In fact, in 2007, both Obama and Biden told us in their Senate offices that they believed that America needed to play the "honest broker" role in the Middle East and that until that happened, the peace process was going nowhere. Neither had any illusions that the Bush administration could play that role, while both encouraged us to hang on until 2009. Obama said, "and once I'm president, make sure your voices get through to me."
It's now one month into the Obama administration and, again, we see the impact of IPF's presence.
The Obama administration has thrown open its meetings and briefings with the Jewish community to those of us who make negotiations a priority.
This week former Senator George Mitchell, the president's envoy to the Middle East, held a phone conversation with the organized Jewish community.
Unlike the bad old days, the representatives of the community did not speak in one (hawkish) voice. No, this time the participants included not just the old establishment, but also the newer groups that subscribe to the view that being pro-Israel requires supporting (not thwarting) United States diplomacy.
In fact, most of the people on the call delivered that message while the status quo crowd stuck to the old flat talking points, points which for eight years were the only ones government officials ever heard. And Mitchell listened and responded; more than that, it was clear that he welcomed our support.
He believes that Israel's security can only be achieved through a political agreement, that economic initiatives cannot do it except in the context of political movement (despite Binyamin Netanyahu's position), and that the current divisions in the Palestinian community need to be healed if progress is to be made.
He also made it clear that he will indeed play the role of honest broker and that, at seventy-five, he does not intend to fail.
The most striking thing about the Mitchell call was that it demonstrated that the right-wing of the pro-Israel community has become something of a relic.
I am not saying that their view of the Middle East will not prevail in the end. At this point, only a fool is confident that Israel and the Palestinians will ever live peacefully, side-by-side, in two states. No, it is possible that the deadly status quo-with its intermittent wars and terrorism-will continue. In other words, the status quo crowd may yet see the triumph of their hopeless point of view.
Nonetheless, the right-wing has lost its ability to speak for the pro-Israel community. It is now evident that it speaks only for a segment of the community, and not even the majority. It is also evident that the Obama administration understands that and is doing what it can to empower this vanguard (all of whom preferred Obama last November, in contrast to the status quo crowd which favored McCain).
In short, the "iron wall" that was represented by a monolithic pro-Israel community that promoted failed policies for fifty or sixty years has collapsed. In its place is a community that agrees that Israel must remain a secure homeland for the Jewish people, but differs profoundly on how to achieve it. Some of us -- me, for instance -- believe that one difference between the old establishment and us is that if our policy prescriptions offer security to both Israelis and Palestinians. Our adversaries' prescriptions, if followed, will mean the end of the Jewish state. Don't they see that, or have they gotten to the point where the only thing that matters to them is despising Arabs and Muslims, regardless of the consequences for Israel?
I don't know.
But I do know that at long last it is our voice that is being heard at the highest levels i.e. the White House. What a difference one election makes.