By Allison Good
Special to Southern Jewish Life
Attendees to this March’s J Street conference in Washington were surprised by the appearance of Barukh Binah, the Netanyahu government’s deputy chief of mission to Israel’s embassy in Washington.
Binah was among many Israelis who spoke at the conference, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, acclaimed author and activist Amos Oz, social protest leader Stav Shaffir, and the mayor of the town of Yerucham. They represented a wide spectrum of political perspectives, from the right-wing government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, to the centrist Kadima party, to the liberal left.
“We need you to stand with us,” said Binah, the first Israeli government representative to ever address the pro-Israel, pro-peace group, during J Street’s gala dinner. “It is as simple as that and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem, especially when we need you the most.”
He added that, at the end of the day, it is Israelis, not Americans, who “may have to pay the ultimate price.”
“Our borders are curved and dusty, and made of missiles and mayhem, and as we continue to face incurable threats we have to make decisions of life and death,” Binah explained. “We… have no margins of error, none whatsoever.”
Binah also begged the audience not to forget its past.
“While our view is always toward the future, we dare not forget our past,” he said. “Please do not tell me that it is no longer relevant because it is. It is alive and scorching. I urge you to stand by our side… as Jews for the sake of our forefathers and our future.”
Though his speech garnered more booing than applause, Binah seemed to think his words had been well-received.
“I thought they responded well,” he told Southern Jewish Life. “Many people approached me afterward and told me I said something that had to be said.”
Olmert, who has been indicted on corruption charges for seeking bribes in a Jerusalem real estate scandal, followed Binah with a much-applauded rallying cry for a two-state solution, invoking the peace plan he presented to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in September 2008.
“I thought then and I thought now that there is no alternative to what I proposed, and one day… when we will celebrate peace with the Palestinians, this peace will be identical to what I proposed to Abu Mazen finally and officially on September 16, 2008,” he declared.
The Olmert Plan proposed a two-state solution along the pre-Six Day War 1967 borders and the annexation of 6.3 percent of the West Bank, an area home to a large Jewish population.
The former prime minister’s comments on the final status of Jerusalem were both firm and sobering.
“It is impossible to have a city with 500,000 people who are privileged and have all the advantages and benefits of what a city can offer, and 250,000 who are not at the same level, to put it mildly,”Olmert said about Jerusalem’s disenfranchised Palestinian population.
Regarding the Holy Basin and Temple Mount, he asked the audience to “cry” with him.
“It was hard to offer to Abu Mazen that there should be no sovereignty over the Temple Mount — not yours, and not ours,” Olmert said. “Don’t applaud with me, cry with me, but understand that for a Jew to offer this is possible only if you have reached the inevitable conclusion that if you want to live in peace and secure the future of the Jewish people in the State of Israel as an independent democratic Jewish state, this is a conclusion that you have to make, and I proposed it.”
Famed Israeli author Amos Oz agreed with Olmert.
“Let us wave no flag over the disputed holy places, let us make the necessary arrangement that everyone can pray freely and comfortably and proudly in the holy places,” he declared during the opening plenary. “There can be no happy ending.”
Shaffir, one of the leaders of Israel’s social protest movement, said that young Israelis are particularly pessimistic about the country’s political process.
“The young citizens of our country have quite a different perspective,” she explained. “Many of our best friends are finishing the military service left the country and are today living in Europe or the U.S. Many more have given up on a future in Israel not only because of the financial situation but also because the lack of hope in our political process.”
Last summer’s protests erupted due to the extreme social and financial inequality that has plagued Israel for several years. As Shaffir noted, Israel has the second highest income inequality in the world after the U.S., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The protests were also the largest in Israel’s history; throughout the summer, activists built 120 tent camps all over the country.
“The situation is the result of 30 long years, shared by both left- and right-wing governments that reduced our social and health services one by one,” Shaffir added.
Michael Biton, the mayor of the town of Yerucham, which is located in Israel’s Negev desert, waxed nostalgic about the social cohesion of the 1970s.
“I was fortunate to be born into the Israeli society that existed in the 1970s,” he said. “Back then Israel may have been poorer in resources, but it was richer in solidarity and social cohesion.”
Yerucham, which has been plagued with corruption and official neglect for years, is thriving under the leadership of Biton, who called for bolstering the Israeli periphery instead of the settlements in the West Bank.
“We need to stop pouring resources into Judea and Samaria,” he explained. “We need to stop neglecting the Galil and the Negev, and start delivering a new and fair social contract to cities that will be in Israel for the long haul.”
At J Street’s conference in Washington, it was clear that while the liberal pro-Israel and pro-peace group has gained support among American college students and some Congressmen, it cannot seem to break into the Obama administration’s conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of the 2,500 attendees who attended the summit in March, over 650 were students. They came from 125 schools, including Stanford University, Brown University, the University of Wisconsin, American University, the University of Virginia, Tulane University, and the University of Texas. International students came from the London School of Economics, McGill University in Montreal, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Thirty-eight chapters of J Street U, the organization’s network of student activists, were present.
“We knew we needed to change the conversation on campus,” J Street U West Coast representative and Reed College student Hannah Fishman told the audience at the opening plenary on March 24.
In his opening address, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami acknowledged the students’ presence.
“We owe our continued success and our growth to the hard work of thousands of students and local activists,” he said. “You are the heart of this movement, and I offer you my deepest thanks.”
In addition to attending conference panels about issues like nuclear Iran, Palestinian perspectives on the conflict, the future of “pro-Israel,” and the Arab Spring’s effect on prospects for peace, students also participated in a special J Street U campus strategy meeting and lobbied on Capitol Hill during J Street’s Advocacy Day.
J Street’s Congressional appeal, on the other hand, is harder to measure. When asked how he thinks Congress perceives the organization, Ben-Ami abstained from specifics.
“You can’t generalize 535 across the board,” he explained. “I think there are those on the far right who think we are anathema to everything they think, and I think there are those on the center (to) center-left who are thrilled that we’re here. I think it’s a mixed reaction that depends a lot on the place they’re coming from.”
At a panel titled “Congress and the Peace Process: Creating the Space for Dialogue,” Representatives from across the country decried the lack of positive response from their colleagues.
“A lot of the legislation we deal with when it comes to Israel is made worse by the current leadership in Congress,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “There are lots of bills on Israel that come to the floor that I support, but then there are others with additional language that incite controversy and it becomes much more difficult to support them.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), on the other hand, says she thinks there is a space in Congress for the two-state-solution discourse.
“Is there space in Congress? I say yes,” she said. “I have the privilege to discuss Middle East policy with my colleagues frequently because of the resolutions that come up, and we see Congress veering [away] from supporting a two-state solution, and I can tell you that the majority of members I talk to want that space to cast more balanced votes. They want our country involved as an honest broker.”
When it comes down to numbers, though, the odds are not in J Street’s favor: Only 11 Congressmen signed a letter requesting a meeting with President Barack Obama to share their suggestions for advancing a two state solution.
Rep. Eddie Berenice Johnson (D-Tx.), who traveled to Israel with J Street in November 2011, explained that “J Street is an organization I’ve been looking for for at least 25 years.
“I am pro-Israel, but I’m equally pro-peace because I think sincerely that if there is an uprising to that extent in the area, there will be a third world war with Iran.”
When asked what they thought was the greatest obstacle to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, all three responded with one word: politics.
“The big question for us is how do you get peace back on the radar screen when war is the focus and the debate?” McGovern explained. “How do we get back to identifying the initiatives we can support that help create a climate for peace?”
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel who currently teaches at Princeton University, acknowledged that even pro-peace Washington insiders are unable to crack the Obama administration’s circle of decision-makers.
“Unfortunately, the advice that we’ve given… has been greeted with a Washington consensus of naysayers,” he said. “There is an attitude that suggests that the price the U.S. would have to pay in terms of diplomacy and in terms of political commitment and the investment of our resources may be too high.”
Ben-Ami was also quick to criticize the President’s approach.
“It’s no question that the 2,500 people who are here and the tens of thousands that are actively engaged would say that the results of the first three and a half years of the Obama administration are not what we hoped for,” he noted. “We would like to see the administration take a more proactive role.”