J Street calls for action in face of challenges

Participants, activists urge Congress members to sign letter supporting two-state solution in Washington conference.

Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy J Street)
Jeremy Ben-Ami
(photo credit: Courtesy J Street)
WASHINGTON – The progressive lobby J Street opened its third annual conference Saturday night with its leadership trying to console and rally an activist base whose central action item – the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – has ground to a halt.
J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami urged the 2,500 activists who turned up to the organization’s opening session Saturday night not to become despondent.
“There is much cause for despair. There is no viable peace process,” he said, and then pointed to what he saw as obstacles, including the current leadership in Israel and continued settlement construction.
“I understand and I sympathize that all this is enough to make some give up and stay home,” he told the audience.
“But we know that the present we’re living in is not the future that we want, and history doesn’t record the inaction of those who stay home. History belongs to those who stand up and do.”
In addition to the lack of progress in the peace process, Ben-Ami pointed to the additional challenge of world attention being focused overwhelmingly on the threat of Iran.
“While the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran presents a grave threat, Israel does not have the luxury of choosing which existential crises to address or not at any given time,” Ben-Ami said ahead of the opening of the conference.
“Moreover, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and achieving a two-state solution are not mutually exclusive.”
As part of the effort to draw attention and urgency back to the peace process, J Street activists will ask members of Congress to sign a letter reaffirming support for a two-state solution when they lobby their representatives on Tuesday.
“Israel cannot afford an absence of diminution of US leadership in the urgent quest for peace,” states the letter, which will be sent by signers to US President Barack Obama.
The letter was cosponsored only by Democrats – Steve Cohen of Tennessee, John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Gerry Connolly of Virginia – and includes an oblique swipe at Republicans.
“Broad American political support for the two-state resolution is under serious attack in the increasingly polarized political environment,” the letter states.
“In recent months, some of the national political stage have argued that the United States should not play a lead role in the peace process, even denying the existence of the Palestinian people,” said the letter in a reference to a statement made by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and Republican presidential candidate, who recently described the Palestinians as an “invented” people.
Though the letter speaks to the pressing need to achieve a peace agreement, many conference organizers and participants acknowledge they face an uphill challenge.
During one panel called “Two States When?” on Sunday morning, moderator James Traub baldly asked, “Do you see any reason to be hopeful for progress on a two-state solution?” Panelist Labor MK Ghaleb Majadle answered negatively, saying, “There’s no possibility to begin negotiations.”
He blamed the Netanyahu government for that situation despite assessing that majorities among both Israelis and Palestinians back the idea of carving out two states.
Fellow panelist Leila Hilal, the co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, also said that “the conditions aren’t ripe for peace.
You can’t force a government or a people to accept [steps] if there isn’t a context in which to do that.”
Still, several of the panelists affirmed the importance of the two-state concept as the only viable solution to the conflict and the seeking out of creative options for moving toward that vision.
Majadle also stressed the importance of staying hopeful in a later plenary session featuring MKs from the Labor and Meretz parties.
“We must not be discouraged.
We must win the battle against those who are hopeless and those who seek war,” he said.
MK Zehava Gal-On, the leader of Meretz, admitted that “it’s very hard not to be in the consensus.”
But, she said, “I don’t think we have the luxury to be depressed. So I’m optimistic.”