WASHINGTON – Top US Middle East adviser Dennis Ross said Monday that the uprisings in Egypt and throughout the Arab world had a lesson for Israel in its relations with the Palestinians.
“If Israel can view one lesson from the events in Egypt, it is the danger of getting stuck with an unsustainable status quo,” Ross, special assistant to US President Barack Obama on Middle East issues, told J Street’s annual conference. “Just as the frustrations in Egypt grew over time, we should all recognize that the conflict with the Palestinians will only become more intractable over time.”
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He said the administration remained committed to pursuing a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians despite the other crises in the region, but demurred when pressed in a question-andanswer session on whether the US should present a plan to get the parties to take action.
He noted that the US had been undertaking quiet, separate talks with the two parties and, given the current upheaval, was not yet ready to propose bridging ideas or otherwise take definitive action.
“We have to think through carefully what do we do on peace and how it relates to what the focus is on now in the region, the relations between the rulers and ruled,” he said. “We’ll make a judgment on where the process is and the sides are. That process hasn’t played out yet.”
Questioned about the Palestinian Authority’s appeal to the UN over settlements and other key issues, Ross said the international body was “not the forum” for a peace agreement.
“Unilateral moves aren’t going to produce agreements,” he said.
Ross received a lukewarm reception from the audience, in contrast to the much warmer reception given to then-national security adviser Jim Jones when he addressed the gathering last year and told them he believed the Arab-Israeli conflict was the international issue he would most like to solve.
Though Ross is a significantly lower-profile figure than Jones, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said he was a fitting choice, considering his role as the top White House Middle East adviser. J Street had requested an administration speaker for its conference, and the decision of whom to send was made by the White House.
Ben-Ami also said the lack of focus in Ross’s address on the peace process – he instead emphasized recent events in Egypt, the wider region and Iran rather than J Street’s central concerns – didn’t indicate any administration shift away from prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I would bet that in the coming weeks this returns front and center, even perhaps at a higher priority,” he added. “The more that there is freedom and dignity at the center of the Arab world, there is going to be a justifiable question about how that extends to the Palestinians.”
The crowd gave a more enthusiastic greeting to several Israeli MKs who appeared on Sunday evening. A total of five went to the conference – Kadima members Nachman Shai, Shlomo Molla, Orit Zuaretz and Yoel Hasson, and Labor’s Daniel Ben- Simon. Labor MK Amir Peretz canceled his own participation.
Shai read a statement on behalf of the entire group, calling for Jewish unity and stressing, “You are entitled to answers to the questions that you raise, which are legitimate and important.
The State of Israel and its representatives, official and otherwise, should give them.”
But the statement also said that the “dialogue between J Street and Israel – or world Jewry as a whole and Israel – should be run in internal channels, within the Jewish people.” Shai also cautioned that he was “not sure if you are aware that there are opinions that are expressed, which are occasionally controversial, within the Israeli internal dialogue that are then used by Israel’s enemies against Israel.”
Following the public panel, Shai criticized the Israeli embassy for not sending a representative.
Last year, at J Street’s first conference, a low-level envoy was sent to observe.
Shai was recently appointed to head a Knesset subcommittee focusing on the challenge of international efforts to delegitimize Israel, and said the matter was deeply pressing for the Israeli government. But co-panelist Ben-Simon dismissed the notion of a global campaign to demonize the country, saying he didn’t share the premise that it was a strategic threat to Israel.
“I tend to not trust the honesty of some politicians in Israel, that they say the main enemy is that the world community does not accept us,” he said to applause from the audience. He was referring to right-wing leaders in Israel who he suggested were manipulating the issue to suit their political and policy ends.
Ben-Ami expressed a slightly different perspective, saying that “there are people in the world who seek to delegitimize Israel. I do believe that that exists. There are anti-Semites.
There are people who hate not only the people but the State of Israel.”
But he continued that “those who use that fear to shut down legitimate criticism are making a tremendous mistake.”
After the MKs took the stage, Ben-Ami recognized them for “the courage and the leadership that was shown by these five individuals being here today.”
Prior to their trip, Shai said 80,000 Kadima members had received phone calls criticizing the party MKs’ decision to participate in a conference held by a lobby group seen by many to be working against the interests of Israel. He said his office had received a flood of angry calls after the critical message was sent out, but that he had also received many positive comments after he posted his decision to attend on his Facebook page.
Shai told The Jerusalem Post that despite the criticism, it was important to hear what the group had to say, even if he didn’t agree with it all of the time.
“Just as I reject boycotts against Israel, I reject boycotts against any Jewish organization, even if it is controversial,” he said.
But Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein took a different view.
Edelstein sent a strongly worded letter to opposition leader Tzipi Livni on Monday, protesting the letter of support she had sent J Street. Livni had wished the organization well in honor of its annual conference and expressed regret that she could not attend.
Edelstein said that J Street was engaged in blatant anti-Israel activity, including lobbying congressmen to support anti-Israel legislation, harming efforts of Israeli diplomats to reach out to college students, and asking the American administration not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israel. He said Livni had made a mistake by allowing Kadima MKs to speak at the conference.
“Taking an active part in a conference whose entire goal is to question Israel’s legitimacy and stability crosses a red line that had not been crossed before by a Zionist party,” Edelstein wrote Livni. “Your support for your MKs participating in the conference is an endorsement by Kadima of efforts to encourage boycotts of Israel.”
The MKs attending the conference said they didn’t think there would be any real political price for them to pay, though Ben-Simon thought there was a political cost for those spending the time and effort to oppose their participation.
“Mainly the impact this has is in the effort the Foreign Ministry makes and the energy they spend,” he told the Post.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.