J Street summit in S.F. calls for U.S. action on peace talks, less catering to Israel

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sue fishkoff   |   j. staff

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may have broken down, and the gap between the parties might be wider than ever, but that’s no reason not to try, try again — and it’s still up to the United States to take the lead.

That was the message opening night at J Street’s national summit June 7 in San Francisco, delivered by three big-name speakers with intimate knowledge of the troubled region.

“There’s so much bad blood between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that without the United States we won’t move forward,” Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told a crowd of about 600 gathered at Congregation Emanu-El to kick off the two-day summit.

Opening night of J Street’s national summit at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco on June 7 photos/marc hors

Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, agreed, but also blasted this and previous U.S. administrations for what he said was a “lack of parity” in its dealings with the parties — by which he meant its catering to Israel.

While he said Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent Mideast effort started out strong, “it went off track, when the [U.S.] did exactly what it did in the 1990s, which also led to failure: We negotiated first with Israel and only when Israel reached its comfort zone did we talk to the Palestinians. Unbelievable.”

The big draw of the evening was former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose booking as a key speaker at a major Jewish conference was touted by J Street and criticized by others.

Before he stepped down in April 2013, the Texas-educated Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, had been lauded in the West for his pragmatic leadership, including his focus on building a Palestinian political and economic infrastructure in the West Bank in advance of statehood.

That approach was very much on the bimah at Emanu-El, as Fayyad underlined the need for continued bilateral negotiations leading to a sovereign Palestinian state. But, he said, simply talking isn’t enough. Clear parameters have to be set so the Palestinian side understands what kind of state it is building, and what guarantees the international community will provide.

A foundational parameter, he said, is an end to the Israeli occupation. “Israel … should be prepared to accept an internationally mandated date for ending its occupation and a mutually agreed upon path for getting there,” he said.

Noting that he was already out of government last year when talk turned to the possibility of a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley after Palestinian independence, he said such proposals indicate “the Israeli need for security is viewed as a higher need than the Palestinian need for sovereignty,” and in a process so fraught with emotion, perceptions like that are critical.

Former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad answers a question.

“We need a meaningful state, not a state of leftovers, and we need to be assured of that,” he said.

It is, he said, in the best interests of the international community to support the emergence of a viable Palestinian state “founded on the basis of progressive values,” particularly in today’s Middle East, “a region tragically caught up in extremism and violence.”

Evincing a certain frustration, Fayyad faulted the international community “for not doing a bit more to ensure that the PA was not in a seemingly perpetual financial crisis in the period from 2010 to 2012,” which is when he was trying, with little outside support, to construct a new Palestinian economy. 

The Obama administration came under continued fire throughout the evening. J Street board chair Morton Halperin praised the White House’s announcement that it will deal with the new Hamas-Fatah government, but those were just about the only kind words of the night.

Kurtzer blasted the administration for its lack of leadership in the negotiations. He said the United States  should have presented its own framework proposal when the talks began to stall, to get the two sides “out of their comfort zones” so they could make what he and the other speakers said were the hard compromises needed to bring about a two-state solution.

“Instead, we’ve gone into hibernation,” he charged. “Everyone has their head stuck in the ground like an ostrich.” And when you do that, he added, “you expose a [particular] part of your anatomy.”

Fayyad, who is on record for his strong opposition to Hamas, criticized Israel’s refusal to deal with the new unity government because it includes the terrorist organization. That’s not realistic, he said, because there can be no real peace if Gaza remains “a stand-alone entity,” not brought into the process.

“There are Israeli Cabinet members opposed to the two-state solution, yet that does not prevent Israel from interacting on the world stage,” he said. “Hamas is out there as part of our system. We have to manage pluralism, not [prevent] it.”

All three speakers acknowledged that as successive rounds of negotiations fail to produce results, hardline attitudes are gaining ground. And that, they agreed, is dangerous.

 “While I continue to believe that the future of Palestinians and Israelis depends on achieving a two-state resolution to a conflict that has lasted far too long, I cannot ignore the hard truth that … the two-state solution camp has been put on the defensive,” Fayyad said.

Each round of talks is more important than the one before, he added, as there’s a desperate need to break out of a fixation on framework issues and focus on end results.

“We know enough from our experience with the ‘peace process’ over the past 20 years to conclude that, without significant adjustments, the existing paradigm probably will not lead to a resolution any time soon, no matter how many times we hit the reset button.”


‘What Next?’ J Street puts its cards on table at summit

lyn davidson   |   j. corresponent

J Street held its first major conference outside Washington, D.C., last weekend, with more than 500 registered participants showing up for the two-day confab in San Francisco.

There was blunt talk of “occupation” and harsh words for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the brunt of the blame for the failure of peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Other persistent themes included coalition building with ideological allies and conflict resolution with opponents. The phrase “two-state solution” was more common than handshakes, and panelists expressed a sense of urgency about Israel’s growing international isolation.

In the “What Next?” plenary on June 8 at the JCCSF, (from left) moderator Bradley Burston, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, Debra DeLee of Americans for Peace Now, Kenneth Bob of Ameinu and Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund photo/marc hors

The J Street 2014 National Summit took place June 7-8 at three San Francisco venues, including Congregation Emanu-El and the JCC of San Francisco. The first-time event was held in lieu of the organization’s national conference, which will return in March 2015 in Washington.

The non-voting, non-policy-making conference came barely two weeks after the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying organization’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was shot down, and a month after the collapse of the U.S.-brokered talks for a “framework” for a two-state solution — the goal J Street backs most vocally.

Given those setbacks, the mood was decidedly upbeat.

J Street’s leadership engaged in a good deal of public reflection at the conference. The opening session June 8 at the JCCSF was called, appropriately, “What Next?” — and it was devoted to ideas for concrete action in the wake of what speakers described as a strong, well-funded American Jewish Right.

“Where’s our Sheldon Adelson?” New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch asked rhetorically, referring to the Jewish Las Vegas casino mogul who sinks millions of dollars into Republican political campaigns and pro-Israel causes.

His comment got the expected audience laughs, but his point, he later clarified, was serious: Progressive Jews give to a wide variety of causes, spreading their influence in many directions, while wealthy conservative Jews give to Israel.

So when pulpit rabbis say they’re afraid to invite left-wing speakers or screen controversial films on Israel, for fear of alienating their major donors, is J Street, or its allies on the political left, ready to step into the funding breach for those who take such risks?

That’s certainly something to think about, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, later told J. It’s important, he said, for Jews on the left to be as proactive as their conservative counterparts.

“If a Jewish institution gets half a dozen vitriolic phone calls over me being invited to speak, they [panic],” he said. “They need to understand there are dozens in the community who agree with us — but they’re not picking up the phone.” Or, one might add, the checkbook.

One of the Sunday panels at the JCCSF — on the role of women in promoting peace and a two-state solution — included newly elected Knesset member Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party. She also addressed a packed Kanbar Hall during a plenary session in which she and others spoke about the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel.

Michaeli said the Israeli public has mostly been aware of only two kinds of American Jews, “rich, conservative” donors and “those who don’t care.” In J Street, she said, Israel is being introduced to “a third kind: They care about Israel, but they care about it in a different way.”

Michaeli kept up the pointed criticism of Israeli society and government that has marked her tenure in the Knesset. Israel, she said, is “the only place in the world where there is no Jewish pluralism.”

Honoree Dr. Carol Hutner Winograd (center) and Knesset member Merav Michaeli (right) at the June 8 gala dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel photo/marc hors

She told the audience: “We do need you to be more supportive of the [Israeli] left, [but] not necessarily the two-state solution. Maybe it’s not the only solution possible.” She clarified her position in a speech later that night at the group’s gala dinner honoring Dr. Carol Hutner Winograd, professor emerita at Stanford University and a J Street national board member.

“I want to urge us not to use the one-state solution as a threat,” Michaeli said, referring to a much-discussed scenario in which Jews in Israel eventually would be outnumbered by Palestinians. Such fears “reinforce racism, that Arabs are a threat to us … we should not play into this.”

Another panelist, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of Los Angeles’ IKAR community, expanded on the ironies of Israel-related discourse in the U.S., echoed by UCLA history professor David Myers, who pointed out that American leaders are often “pilloried” for the same kind of sharp criticism of Israel that goes unchallenged in the Israeli press.

Brous said she has received “misogynistic, anti-Semitic” and “incredibly threatening” messages and insults from people who see her as a “traitor” to the Jewish community for her op-eds, sermons and support of J Street. Yet her stance is that “Israel has a right and an obligation to defend itself,” while also recognizing that “Palestinians are human beings.”

She once urged a Conservative synagogue to screen “The Gatekeepers,” a documentary featuring the ruminations of six former heads of Israel’s internal security service, but was told, “We don’t screen anti-Israel propaganda.” Brous shot back, “You’re more Zionist than six former heads of the Shin Bet?”

The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement came under fire at a panel on the economic future of civil society for Palestinians.

Panelist Sam Jadallah, a Bay Area Palestinian American entrepreneur, explained his support for the BDS campaign, and asked the audience “not to turn off your mind when you hear ‘BDS.’ … It’s not about destroying Israel.”

That prompted Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a J Street board member, to tell Jadallah that she supported “everything [he] said,” up to that point, but that his position on BDS was a dealbreaker. “For me and, I believe, for most American Jews, it slams the door,” she said.

Ben-Ami later told J., “We’ve always said that we have people on our panels, in our conferences, that we don’t agree with … We couldn’t be clearer about our opposition to BDS. [But] if there are discussions about BDS, that’s a good thing.”

J Street, he said, is sending an executive member to the upcoming Presbyterian assembly in Detroit “to argue against BDS.”

Ben-Ami said at the conference that one of J Street’s current objectives is ensuring that any potential agreement between the P5+1 group of nations and Iran over its nuclear program is not blocked by Congress.

“The odds are that the hot issue in Middle East policy within the next three to four months is likely to be Iran,” he told a reporter for the Times of Israel. “It’s not a matter of us pivoting [away from J Street’s main objectives]. It’s really that that’s where the attention of the policy and political world will be.”

On the panel “Peacemaking in an Unstable Neighborhood,” Iranian studies professor Abbas Milani of Stanford University said he was “cautiously optimistic” about pending talks with Iran aimed at reducing its nuclear capabilities.

He cited the increasing influence of women, youth and the technically educated in Iran as strengthening opposition to the power of the mullahs. These forces could be poised to put “radicalism in defeat,” aided by fallout from the financial corruption scandals from the previous administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As for last month’s vote that denied J Street a seat with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ben-Ami told J. that “the vote was much more a reflection on the Conference and its procedures than it was on J Street.”

He said he hopes the Conference will “look at itself” and “become a more open tent,” and that J Street would then look at renewing its application.

Meanwhile, J Street aims to continue working with members of Congress to support its vision for peace. “Our PAC endorses almost every single member of Congress in the Bay Area,” Ben-Ami said.