J Street’s national conference, held this week in Washington, proved controversial before the doors even opened at the convention center downtown.
The expected presence of Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat at the liberal, pro-Israel event so rankled the head of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, that Fingerhut canceled his appearance, citing inflammatory statements Erekat made about Israel.
Yet here Erekat was on the stage Monday, earning the lion’s share of the applause that the 3,000 attendees gave to the big-name speakers at the three-day conference.
“No one stands to gain more of peace more than the Palestinians, and no one stands to lose more from the absence of peace more than the Palestinians,” Erekat told the gathering, then repeated the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to meeting Israel on equal terms.
“We have recognized the state of Israel’s right to exist on the 1967 lines; this stands….My only option is a two-state solution. For the state of Palestine to live in peace and security next to the state of Israel and on the 1967 lines,” he said.
Erekat avoided the hyperbolic rhetoric he is associated with and interspersed his booming and passionate oratory with jokes and anecdotes.
“Well, I’ve known Mr. Netanyahu for 31 years,” he said. “And when I’m asked openly about Israeli elections, I always say, ‘I don’t interfere in Israeli domestic affairs.’ You know what? If you sneeze in Tel Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho.”
Erekat called for an end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and a negotiated two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders – a position in line with J Street’s constituency but at odds with most of the organized American Jewish community, and Netanyahu himself.
At the heart of the J Street conference was a pushback on what its members fear are two closing doors. One is the door to a two-state solution which would mean Israel would have to shed either its Jewish or its democratic character. The other is the door to the American Jewish community, which is shutting itself to their viewpoints. Erekat spoke to the gathering’s concern about Israel.
“We should not allow Palestinian and Israeli leaders to exploit fear for us. Leaders are supposed to create hope. Leaders are supposed to tell people what they should hear, not what they’d like to hear,” said Erekat. Then he turned sarcastic. “I hear some Israelis say, ‘We don’t have a partner. We will have to wait to create the right atmosphere. Let’s see what happens in Syria, Iraq, Yemen … Congo. Maybe it has a relation?’ “
Erekat reminded the audience that Israel has not transferred the tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority for the last four months, promising to withhold the receipts as long as the PA continues unilateral efforts to bring war crime charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court and seeks recognition of statehood from the United Nations.
Addressing Netanyahu as if he were on the stage with him, Erekat warned the prime minister that because Israel continues to hold Palestinian tax money, the PA has become unsustainable and is nearing collapse – a situation, he said, that would lead to Israel having to assume all the responsibility of administering areas now under PA control.
“If that’s what you’re seeking – to keep us an authority without authority – and you want your occupation to be cost free?” he continued. “Sir, if you don’t get your act together, you will be invited to resume your occupation powers fully. You will be responsible for everything between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.”
One-third of those who came to the conference belonged to J Street U, the organization’s growing university arm. And the question of the drop-off of support for Israel among millennials hung over the meeting rooms and the exhibition hall where Jewish organizations – most on the political left – staffed information tables.
The trickiness of attracting and keeping young Jews in the pro-Israel fold was illustrated by the Fingerhut incident: The head of the Jewish organization whose mission is to serve as a home for pro-Israel Jewish students cancelled a meeting with 1,100 of those pro-Israel Jewish students.
Becca Rosenthal, a student at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said she believes this concern is self-defeating.
“The American Jewish community is scared about the next generation – ‘how do we get the millennials involved?’” she said. “When we’re asking hard questions, and we want to do it within the American Jewish community, and we want to do it Jewishly – they refuse to have these conversations on Jewish spaces.”
Rosenthal is Jewish community outreach coordinator for Open Hillel, a national student group that opposes Hillel International’s guidelines on who is welcome in the organization based on their stance about Israel. She said her group will work to open the mainstream Jewish community to more viewpoints.
“We’re going to be a thorn in their side so that we can have the Jewish community we want to see,” she said. “Where are your donors going to come from in 20 years?”
It’s the Holocaust, said Jerry Ward, an attendee from Houston. He looks at the Jewish community and sees it “circling the wagons” when it comes to Israel.
“The Holocaust – the one that happened and the one that might happen – drives everything.”
At the other side of the table, Sally Mechur, of Brookline, Mass., agrees and adds, “We send [our children] off to be critical thinkers and citizens of the world. They don’t have this fear of the Holocaust.”
After the election
The conference, J Street’s fifth, opened days after Israeli voters handed victory to Netanyahu. At an election post-mortem, panelists from the Israeli left and center were pragmatic about where the country was going in its search for an agreement with the Palestinians.
Journalist Moav Vardi told of a conversation he had with Netanyahu in which the prime minister pointed out that every territory Israel has evacuated has been taken over by terrorists. When Vardi asked why Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, he answered, “This is why I support security guarantees.”
Said Vardi: “The gap between what Netanyahu thinks he is able to risk for peace falls far short of what any Palestinian government will accept. It’s very important for this audience to see if a two-state solution is still viable and distance ourselves for an hour from the notion that it is only [an issue of] right and left.”
Ofer Shelach, a Knesset member from the Yesh Atid party, said that the starting point for a solution needs to be what is good for Israel.
“If we do not separate ourselves with the Palestinians, we are in certain danger of losing Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.
The new starting point for peace is a regional framework built on the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002, he said. “We have a joint interest with [pro-U.S. Arab] countries that we never had before.”
Knesset Member Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party disagreed. “A regional solution is fashionable now. But it does not replace the core problem in our region. We cannot use it to replace dealing with the Palestinian issue.”
Aluf Benn, managing editor of Haaretz, said the status quo – no peace and no war – “is very convenient with Israelis.” Arguments over democracy versus apartheid are mainly academic, “but rockets fired on Ben-Gurion Airport is a more visible threat.”
Netanyahu is both an ideologue and a pragmatist, said Benn, who has covered the prime minister since the 1990s. The main pressure on the Israeli government will not come from United Nations Security Council resolutions but from pressure for a settlement freeze. “Even the right wing will have to swallow it, because Netanyahu does not want to be a pariah.”
If the post-mortem was a nuts-and-bolts look at the Israeli reality, the plenary session “Does Liberal Zionism Have a Future?” was an urgent rallying of the faithful to push wide the doors of the Jewish community to “open conversation” about Israel.
Peter Beinart, a liberal Jewish writer, said Netanyahu has had a devastating effect, between the partisan fight over his address to Congress and his election eve declaration against a two-state solution.
“Netanyahu has destroyed the American Jewish center – those Democrats who claim to support a two- state solution,” he said.
Netanyahu’s support was a “fig leaf” that allowed the pro-Israel community to remain largely united, he said. “Netanyahu has taken that fig leaf away.” The pro-Israel community “is floating increasingly into the Republican party, which is one-statist in character.”
What’s next for liberal, two-state Zionists? Beinart said they need to “think very hard on how we can amplify Palestinian non-violent protest in the West Bank.” He said that if young Jews joined Palestinians in demonstrating for a two-state solution it could have a galvanizing effect in the United States, much as when white youth went to Mississippi to support civil rights.
The liberal agenda should include “support [President] Barack Obama” and “put a Security Council stamp on a two-state solution in 2015,” Beinart said.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, bemoaned the “censorship and shutting down a range of voices in Jewish spaces” about Israel. “I’m horrified that the American Jewish community has become so anti-intellectual,” she said.
She contrasted how Jews with unorthodox views on Israel are treated with someone who showed up in a rabbi’s office and said, “I don’t believe in God.”
The rabbi would probably invite you in, want to study a little Torah with you, and tell you that you don’t believe in God yet, Kleinbaum said. “But if you came in and said, ‘I’m not a Zionist,’ you’d be thrown out.”
Baker walks a tightrope
Former Secretary of State James Baker, delivering the keynote address Monday night at a gala dinner hosted by J Street, tried treading on a razor’s edge in his speech—balancing criticism of anti-two-state solution hardliners with seeking to avoid rekindling past tension with the pro-Israel community.
Although Baker praised Israel’s democratic character in his speech, he told the audience that he was concerned that hardliners on both sides who stand against a two-state solution threaten the security and stability of both Israel and the Palestinians.
“The practical alternative to a two-state solution is continued conflict that would neither guarantee the Israelis the security they deserve, nor deliver to the Palestinians the state that they desire,” he said. “Further, I fear that Israel risks losing either its Jewish character, or its democratic character, as long as it occupies those Arab lands — because demographic changes will ultimately make keeping both impossible.”
The former George H.W. Bush administration official and Republican partisan now serving as foreign policy advisor to likely GOP presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was seen by some as an odd choice for this event. But he fits J Street’s objective of providing an open, bi-partisan forum to discuss Israel-related issues.
The audience reacted more enthusiastically to Baker’s criticism of the Israeli right wing and Netanyahu than to his praise of Israel’s historic alliance with the United States.
He is seen by most of the mainstream pro-Israel community as having presided over a particularly antagonistic period in the relationship between Israel and the United States.
Dmitriy Shapiro is political reporter and David Holzel is a senior writer at WJW.