Friday, October 30, 2009

J Street comes alive on Washington, DC map


The Israel-Palestine peace process – a top foreign-policy objective of the Obama administration – faces continued challenges after months of intense diplomatic talks engineered by George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for the Middle East. These negotiations have produced a mere handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, without being able to produce any framework for an ongoing peace process.

Obama's tough rhetoric against Netanyahu backfired, said Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, and former commander in chief of the navy after a panel discussion at the J Street conference in Washington, D.C. The initial stalemate was presented by Netanyahu as a victory, which was in reality a mere defense of the status quo, he added. Ayalon also stated that after this first round of diplomacy, Obama started to be viewed as a collaborator with the current Israeli administration, which created some questions in the Arab world regarding the degree to which he can uphold his strong stance against Israeli demands.

Under these circumstances, I asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the J Street movement, to describe his organization to me. "[J Street] is the political voice of American Jews and other Americans who believe that it is in our best interests and as well as that of Israel to end the conflict with the Palestinians and to have a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East."

J Street, with a history a mere 18 months in the making, attracted thousands of supporters, the support of hundreds of the members of Congress, high-profile attendees and the Obama administration's unequivocal backing last week. The Obama administration has shown its support by sending the National Security Adviser, Ret. General James L. Jones, to represent the President and to speak at the conference. Gen. Jones concluded that "this U.S. administration will participate in J Street's other activities in the future." On the other hand, while J Street hosted many members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, the one person who shied away from the conference was Israel's ambassador to Washington, D.C., Michael Oren. According to the statement that was released by the Israeli embassy, there were "concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel."

One would rightly ask why is it that this new movement attracted so much attention and sparked a range of discussion in America and across the globe, while Israel already has a mighty lobby, centered around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, in Washington, D.C., an organization that has been staunchly and unequivocally defending Israel's policies? What is it that makes J Street so unique to draw thousands of participants, many of whom come from the other states and places as far away as Jerusalem?

I attended most meetings of the conference for two-and-a-half days to receive answers to these questions. I met many ordinary participants as well as religious leaders, rabbis and humanitarian workers from Jerusalem. I met a couple of the participants during the "Jewish Community Town Hall" meeting, after speeches by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Jeremy Ben-Ami. After these speeches, the crowd discussed some of the questions of the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the Israeli-Arab peace process in general. Two participants were from Oxfam International, a confederation of 14 organizations working in more than 70 countries to find permanent solutions to poverty and injustice. One of these participants was John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam's country director, who has been living in Jerusalem and Gaza for about five years.

John said that Israel still occupies Gaza from the sea, land and air, even if it claims officially it does no longer do so. According to the Geneva Conventions, Israel has to allow humanitarian help to enter Gaza. However, John argues, what is allowed to go into Gaza is incredibly limited. For example, macaroni cannot get in because it is considered a luxury food item. Israel only allows about 100 trucks of food to go in to Gaza a day, as opposed to 600-700 trucks before the Gaza conflict. Cement or any other construction materials are not allowed by the border officials as they could be used to make tunnels. His frustration goes further by talking about the terrible circumstances the Gazans live under; ordinary Jewish-American people also sitting at our table are equally angry and add their own criticisms to his frustrations. Another Jewish-American participant who is equally frustrated by the Israeli government's harsh treatment of the Gazan people was Naftali Kaminski, a doctor, who joined the conference from Pittsburgh.

Therefore, the first reason for J Street's success and wide popularity undoubtedly comes from the grassroots support of ordinary American Jews who are tired of Israel's grinding policies in Gaza and stubborn settlement practices. The grassroots support is, I believe, the most important element for any organization to be effective and apparently J Street has it all. There is another very important reason for J Street's immediate success, which is that it coincided perfectly with a new U.S. administration coming into office. J Street's close relationship with and support of the Obama administration was seen very clearly during the conference and this special relation apparently makes the organization’s mission to fill a gap in American politics even stronger. J Street defends many parallel policies that fit well with the Obama administration's plans, such as the two-state solution and a complete freeze of the settlements. It was also interesting to see that whenever a panelist talked about a two-state solution, criticized Israel for what it did during the last Gaza war or called for ending the occupation, the J Street crowd roared and applauded excitedly.

Even though J Street received heavy flak from AIPAC and other hard-line right-wing Israeli factions in respect to their criticism of Israel's policies, the open-minded discussions and honest debates on the panels were exhilarating and personally lifted my hopes for the peace process. To see a crowd in an inaugural conference describe themselves 'pro-Israel,’ but stand up against the country’s many wrong-headed policies gained my deep respect.

PS. Washington, D.C. marks its streets with letters, and J is missing from the actual map.

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