Inter Press Service
At the third annual conference of J Street, the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby group that is widely seen as a counterweight to the more right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee(AIPAC), the Israel-Palestine conflict took the focus back from the ongoing tension with Iran.
There was much talk of Iran at the Washington conference, but J Street intended to shift attention back to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully focused international attention on Iran, pushing the Palestinian issue off the agenda.
Controversy swirled even before the conference began. Peter Beinart, whom J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami dubbed the "troubadour of our movement", had published an op-ed calling for boycotting products from Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
J Street does not agree with this proposal, and Ben-Ami criticised Beinart's proposal heavily. With Beinart using the J Street conference to launch his new book, this made for some awkward moments, and when the issue came up at one of the plenary sessions, the crowd was evenly split among supporters and opponents of Beinart's idea.
J Street was also criticised in some circles, especially by Palestinian civil society groups, for having former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its highest-profile speaker.
The leading U.S. Jewish periodical, The Forward, published an op-ed criticising J Street for bringing Olmert, whom many, including Israeli human rights organisations, have accused of war crimes in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-09, and who left office under the cloud of a corruption investigation.
The Israeli government faced criticism last year for refusing to participate in J Street's conference. It decided this time to send the deputy head of mission from Israel's U.S. embassy, Baruch Binah, to address the audience, and admonish them for putting pressure on Israel. This stood in sharp contrast to calls for open dialogue from virtually all other speakers.
After having sent his national security adviser to J Street's first conference and his top Middle East negotiator to their last one, President Obama sent the Vice President's top foreign policy adviser, Anthony Blinken, and his own key spokesperson, Valerie Jarrett, who has little involvement in Middle East matters, to this conference. These choices were widely seen as a sign that the administration was being very cautious about J Street.
Jarrett's speech was largely devoted to campaigning for the president's re-election in November, and hardly touched on foreign policy at all.
Blinken's was mostly a reiteration of Obama's talk at AIPAC, focusing on Obama's strong support for Israeli security, the strengthening of U.S.-Israeli military coordination and cooperation that has been called "unprecedented", and on Obama's insistence that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon but intends to exhaust other options before turning to a military one.
"Later this year, (the United States and Israel) will conduct the largest joint exercise ever," Blinken said. "Despite fiscal challenges, President Obama has requested 3.1 billion dollars (in military aid to Israel) for 2013, the most ever."
On Iran, Blinken noted, "Iranian nuclear weapons pose a security threat to the United States as well. That's why President Obama said we do not have a policy of containment but are committed to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
"This 'loose talk of war' … is incredibly counterproductive. It drives up oil prices, taking money from us and putting it in Iran's pocket… We believe it is possible to be smart and tough at the same time."
Neither Blinken nor Jarrett gave any indication of new or renewed initiatives designed to restart Israel-Palestinian peace talks. But former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer offered some ideas as to how to move forward.
"Why not suggest Obama Paramet
res that say this where you start because this is where you left off," Kurtzer said.
This echoes the "Clinton Parameters", which former President Bill Clinton laid down for the two parties in December 2000 at the end of his second term in office and in the wake of the failure of the Camp David II peace summit to produce results several months earlier.
Kurtzer suggested that Obama sum up all the results of prior negotiations, modify them for current realities and present them as a starting point for new talks.
"Within the context of negotiations, we should be pushing both sides to do what they said they would do in the Roadmap in 2002," Kurtzer said, referring to the "Roadmap for Peace" developed by President George W. Bush.
"Freeze settlements; permit Palestinian mobility in order to build their economy; destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism, and build the infrastructure of a Palestinian state. These are requirements two sides accepted, and in the context of negotiations, we should demand they fulfill them."
Kurtzer also criticised the United States' approach to dealing with Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist group and which controls the Gaza Strip. "On one hand we demanded elections, but when Palestinians had them, we walked away because we didn't like the results."
Hamas won a majority of Parliamentary seats in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Since then, the United States and Israel have imposed conditions — acceptance of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence and acceptance of all prior agreements entered into by the Palestinian Authority – for dealing with Hamas as a part of the Palestinian government.
"I think it's fair to ask Hamas to comply with those conditions," Kurtzer said. "The question is whether they are etched in stone or is Hamas given a path to follow. Hamas is charged with maintaining a ceasefire in Gaza. They may not do a good job, but they have the charge, so how do we encourage Hamas to continue, instead of just waiting at the finish line."
The conference itself was saturated with calls to avoid despair, a reflection of the stalled peace process and diminishing hopes for the two-state solution that J Street is dedicated to.
"In 1967, David Ben-Gurion (Israel's first prime minister) said we have to give back the West Bank and Gaza," said Avishai Braverman, a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, from the Labor Party. "It's clear today that we must partition the holy land as soon as possible, because otherwise we will have either one, majority Arab state or Arabs will not have rights."
Knesset member Zehava Golan, the head of the left-wing Meretz party, was more direct. "Today (the fight within Israeli society) is between those who protect Israeli democracy and those who would sacrifice democracy for a messianic vision. They are willing to keep the land and control of millions of Palestinians at the cost of Israel's democratic character," he said.
"Oppressing millions of people for so long is first of all abusive to the Palestinians but also erodes the democratic principles of Israel. Those who think we can do this and maintain democracy are delusional
. ..Democracy and human rights cannot coexist with the occupation of another people."
Mitchell Plitnick is a contributor to Inter Press Service.