This week’s J Street policy conference, “Our Time To Lead,” ran this year from Saturday night through Tuesday. With 2,800 participants — 900 students — it was a sea of turquoise and a rush of chants, “Two
states. Two states.”
Sometimes more like a football game than a foreign policy conference, the youthful energy at the meeting was a testament to the grassroots and community-building work the organization has done on college campuses through its J Street U program.
“We have over 900 students who have chosen to engage,” said Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen during a Monday evening cocktail reception. The leader of J Street U at Princeton, Cohen brought 24 others with him to the D.C. He said the students involved with J Street U feel like they are moving the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform forward, a platform he equated to the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements.
And while certainly there was an air of dedication by the students, there was also an atmosphere much like one would expect at a BBYO or United Synagogue Youth convention. Kids wearing logoed T-shirts, snapping photos of their smiling faces,“checking in” on Facebook and tweeting words of inspiration, peace and love.
The loud cheering was just that, however — cheering. Rah-rah messages brought little diversity or depth to the J Street sessions, of which there were roughly 25. In addition, there were training sessions, which the press was not allowed to attend.
In each session, the message was the one to be expected.
“Those who do not support a two-state solution … [T]hose who think belonging to the Chosen People gives you the right to discriminate against non-Jews, they are the real dangerous anti-Zionists,” bellowed Israeli Knesset member Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) ahead of Vice President Joe Biden’s talk on Monday.
“In moments of crisis, we have a duty to make change,” said Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers during the opening plenary.
“To say we’re doing everything we can to protect Palestinian lives is a lie,” said Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence during a session entitled “The Impact of Human Rights Organizations On Israeli Politics.”
One session, “Iran: A New Chance For Diplomacy,” had two speakers sitting on a panel from the same organization. There was little more.
The vibe in the hallway — and in dialogues during free time and receptions — was that the conference lacked necessary organization and background, something that many compared to the sophisticated AIPAC annual conferences, which draw upwards of 10,000 people.
“Where were the Israel 101s and 102s you see at AIPAC for the inspired who need the background to affectively take a stance?” was a question older participants and other media asked more than once.
“I am often most impressed by AIPAC’s organization,” said Rabbi Eric Solomon, who leads a congregation in North Carolina, a state in which there are approximately 25,000 Jews. He noted that while many members of Conservative congregations nationally shy away from active participation in J Street politics, his congregants have warmed to the idea of their rabbi’s participation. He said the shul honors an active and concerned dialogue about the Jewish State and that they like that “I care and that I am passionate about Israel.”
He said he tries to attend both the AIPAC and the J Street conferences and believes the two organizations can be complementary. “Before the public goes to vote, it has to be educated as to the realities of the peace process,” said Anat Saragusti of B’Tselem USA during the session “Can the People Bring Peace?”
This need for greater education became gruesomely apparent when sessions opened up for questions. Though there were those in the audience who thoughtfully quizzed the speakers, there were many others who struggled to formulate on-the-subject — or even rooted-in-reality — questions.
In “The View From The Palestinian Street,” one participant stood up and asked a panelist how difficult it is to have the majority of Palestinian leaders exiled from the West Bank and cited Yasser Arafat’s
2003 death in a Paris hospital as an example.
The panelist who was asked to respond, Nidal Foqaha of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, was left speechless. Ultimately he told the questioner he was sorry but he could not answer, as the facts were all wrong; although there are a handful of Hamas leaders who still live outside of Gaza, Palestinian Authority top dignitaries live in the West Bank. Arafat was not exiled from Ramallah at the time of his death.
‘The Machinery Is You’
There was only one session devoted to Iran — though at least there was one. Hamas was referred to as weakened and there was little talk — if any — as to whether the terrorist organization could pose an obstacle to peace.
In fact, for a conference focused on moving forward with peace negotiations, there was little talk about the actual status of the negotiations, though Ambassador Martin Sean Indyk did address that question during his keynote address at the Monday night gala. More focus was put on how external influencers can sway the peace process, what movers and shakers — and just average folks — can do to move toward two states for two people. There was also talk about how media, film and even human rights organizations impact Israeli and Palestinians’ understanding of what’s happening at the negotiation table.
During the session “After The Credits Roll: Can films change the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” all three speakers — Ronit Avni, founder and executive director of Just Vision; Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center and the Other Israel Film Festival; and the Gatekeepers’Moreh — said their experience with film helped them see “the other side” of the conflict and to learn the other’s story.
Bassam Aramin, director of international relations for the Parents Circle, said he was impacted by film while serving time in a Palestinian prison. During the session about sentiment on the Palestinian street, he said he watched a film on the Holocaust while in prison, out of revenge for his lockup, so he could laugh at the Jewish people’s pain. But midway through the film, he found himself crying.
“I cannot imagine your fear,” he said, though he noted that he, too, lost his daughter to the conflict. She was shot by an Israeli soldier only several feet from her school.
Moreh commented that as news budgets are being cut, increasingly documentary filmmakers are doing the work of investigative reporters. In a similar vein, Riman Barakat, CO-CEO of Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the media is reporting only one story and not the reality on the ground. For example, she noted that while news reporters are calling it a breakthrough that the Israelis have agreed to start negotiations with the pre- 1967 borders, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared on Israeli TV praising this decision, “I’ll be honest … we are still very much connected to 1948, are still connected to the coastal lines.”
She said the Palestinian Authority has not conveyed this new reality to its own people — “The P.A. is not educating or sort of preparing the Palestinian ground to accept this model.”
The media leaves that part of the story out. The biggest game changer (and the obvious call at a conference called Our Time To Lead) is the people, said nearly all who spoke in larger forums. In his opening remarks at the Monday gala, J Street head Jeremy Ben- Ami said, “The machinery is you.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the crowd, “It is indeed our time to lead. In fact, it is long overdue.”
America The Great?
The elephant in the room — or at least a cause for much debate — was the true role (and ability to have an impactful role) of America in the peace negotiations. Biden talked much about the work Obama has done for Israel, for the peace process.
“No president has done more for the security of Israel than President Barack Obama,” the vice president told a crowd that waited upwards of two hours for him to speak. “Prime Minister Netanyahu … publically thanked the president for insisting on moving forward.”
The crowd cheered loudly for those statements. So did many of the panelists. Secretary General of the Arab League, Hesham Yousef, said he looks to the U.S. to decide its role in the “important” Middle East region. He said a breakthrough will not be made without U.S. intervention. Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the Mideast is a place that needs the U.S. to maintain order.
Some panel speakers, however, were less confident in America’s role.
Knesset member Meir Sheetrit of Israel’s Hatnuah Party said during “UN-ilateralism?” that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “must be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, not by the U.N. or the U.S. With all my heart, I believe we must solve it ourselves.”
Even Biden noted, “We cannot want peace in their country more than they do.” Sheetrit’s statement came just one day before a poll was released by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion, which stated that 68 percent of Palestinians believe that the intervention of the United States in the policies of the Middle East harms the stability in the region. That poll also noted that only 6.2 percent of Palestinians “strongly believe” negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will result in peace.
One striking piece was the near absence of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who recently concluded his term. Oren did send a letter, which was handed out in folders to J Street conference participants. But while the letter noted in 1 1/2 paragraphs that the U.S. and Israel have “worked tirelessly for peace,” there was no mention of J Street and its policies or conference. In fact, the letter was addressed “Dear Friends.”
Similarly, when Oren offered a twominute video clip at the gala dinner, there was an absence of the name of the sponsoring organization or the work that it does. Instead, the video focused on the effort Prime Minister Netanyahu has made toward security and peace and strongly reiterated that Israel is a democracy and the choices being made are those being made by people selected to lead and in the name of popular Israeli opinion.
There was less applause for Oren.
J Street’s policy
At the J Street policy conference, the organization unveiled what it is terming its “2Campaign,” which is focused on defining what it means to have two states for two people. The organization plans to invest $1 million in this campaign in the coming year.
As part of that, J Street outlined the four components it sees as key to the twostate solution:
• Bases borders on pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps and provides robust security guarantees;
• Evacuates settlements outside Israel’s future borders while compensating the estimated one in five settlers who relocate to make peace possible;
• Establishes the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestinian neighborhoods as the capital of the future state of Palestine. Holy sites would be internationally protected and accessible to all.
• Resolves the Palestinian refugee issue through resettlement in the future Palestine or third countries, compensation and a symbolic level of family reunification in Israel itself.
Checking in on the peace process
While there is a strict gag order on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ambassador
Martin S. Indyk, lead American peace negotiator, did share some thoughts about
the process during his talk at the J Street gala. He asked the rhetorical question, “What
is different this time?”
To this, Indyk said, number one is that the key “enemies of peace” are weakened.
Hamas has been reduced by the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Iran is
suffering from sanctions and most other Middle East countries are focused on their own
internal affairs. The chaos in surrounding countries, “is generating a common sense of
purpose between the Arab states and Israel.”
Number two, he noted that there are low expectations for the process. While some
might see that as a deterrent, Indyk said that, in contrast, “those low expectations give
us, the negotiators, some space within which to operate.
He also cited the positive voice of the Arab League, which indicated it would support
a final status agreement and that the political standings of both Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are at a peak. A July poll released by Ha’aretz
showed Netanyahu’s popularity at 56 percent. A Palestine Center for Public Opinion poll,
released Oct. 1, showed that more than 62 percent of Palestinians are at least “somewhat
satisfied” with Abu Mazen’s performance (20.8 percent said they are “very satisfied”).
Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of WJW’s sister publication the Baltimore Jewish Times. Washington Jewish Week editor-in-chief Meredith Jacobs, Senior Writer David Holzel, Staff Writer Eric Hal Schwartz and Baltimore Jewish Times reporter Heather Norris contributed to this article.