SAN FRANCISCO - The Obama administration has publicly committed to funding the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the Palestinians' new unity government that includes elements of Gaza-based Hamas. The administration says it believes that a weakened PA will do Israel more harm than good. In any case, the Palestinian Authority has taken pains to select a governing body of "technocrats" who will continue on the path of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This measure, taken over the protests of angry Israeli officials and lobbyists, is a sign that at last some "daylight" has begun to appear between the positions of the two longtime allies, the U.S. and Israel. It is a reflection of growing frustration following the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry's bilateral peace talks, and a sign of a new-found political will to remain in negotiation mode.
In the wake of his recent visit to Palestine, Jordan and Israel, Pope Francis has since met at the Vatican with Israeli President Shimon Peres and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, trying to kick-start the conversation back to life.
These developments have taken place as J Street, the six-year-old "pro-Israel, pro-peace" liberal Jewish organization, with some 180,000 members and supporters, met here June 7-8 in its first national summit on the West Coast. It was the organization's largest ever annual conference. The weekend event attracted some 500 listeners to hear talks and dialogue among speakers including former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, former U.S. Ambassador to both Egypt and Israel Daniel Kurtzer, and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev, all speaking as private individuals. The next day, some 300 or more attended an all-day series of plenary sessions and workshops focusing on specific aspects of the crisis situation.
Fayyad assured his audience that the new Palestine would embody "progressive values that are universally shared," and "manage pluralism, not do away with it." Shalev called for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory "the sooner the better."
Out of the depths of despair over Kerry's failure, new gestures and formulations are emerging. Ambassador Kurtzer himself came out with a truly astounding suggestion, considering his history: Perhaps it is time for the United States to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council, a body where in the past the U.S. has almost always taken Israel's side on every issue. It is time, he said, "to put forward strong American ideas." "If the president acts presidential," Kurtzer said, "his party could actually do better in the midterm elections."
J Street has taken up the challenge to advance movement toward a solution through a variety of campaigns. It urges Americans to tell our government to place a working framework on the table that can be the basis for an agreement, recognizing that tough, painful concessions will be required on both sides. The basic outline of such a plan has already been articulated many times by various proponents of peace. J Street also asks Americans to contact their elected officials in Washington and urge that funding for the PA continue.
At the same time, J Street asks Americans to press for peaceful diplomacy leading to a nuclear-arms-free Iran. And in the urgency of the collapse of talks, it says its members need to take concrete steps to widen public support for two states, including electing pro-peace members of Congress.
According to numerous studies and polls, American Jewish support for two states (the Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza), has remained consistently high, despite prodigious efforts by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other right-wing organizations to contain the discussion to the Israeli government's talking points and go-slow, go-nowhere policies. Particularly galling for American Jews (as for most people in the world) is Israel's continued building of settlements on Palestinian land while stringing out the endless "peace process."
In that sense J Street's view represents a majority, which became evident just a month ago when J Street was denied membership on the self-appointed, unelected Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, in a move that highlighted the lack of democracy in the American Jewish community. That exclusionary vote has already led to a new critical evaluation of the council's policies on who gets to speak for American Jews.
Polls show that over 80 percent of American Jews want to keep Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people (recognizing that a fifth of the country's population is non-Jewish), and also keep it democratic. Younger American Jews are shrinking back in anguish at the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, now entering its 48th year (!). More and more, American Jewish voices, including rabbis and other spiritual leaders, are letting drop their defensive stance concerning Israel as they say they can no longer morally support Israel's policies. They say they are wondering how to offer a loving intervention when members of their family have gone off course.
On the right, and on the left, other solutions have been put forward. A unitary state of all its people? That would eliminate Israel's Jewish character. Or if the Jewish population remained privileged within it, Israel would indeed become the apartheid society many already accuse it of being. In fact, no evidence suggests that the two populations, Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking, would freely choose to live in a unified secular binational country.
Despite official pronouncements about the desirability of two states living securely in peace side by side, it appears that the effective Israeli agenda is delay, status quo, postponement and uncertainty - about borders, Jerusalem, and refugees - in the hope that over time "facts on the ground" will produce a greater contiguous Israel and an impotent, dismembered collection of areas called Palestine. J Street is only one of several Jewish organizations concerned about the increasing criminalization in Israel of speech in favor of boycotts of Israel or settlement products. In promoting undemocratic practices toward the "other," Israel has inevitably expanded restrictions on its own Jewish citizens.
Despite all - or perhaps because of the global sense of urgency -- J Street founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami predicts that a final status agreement can be reached in the next two years as one of the crowning achievements of Obama's tenure.
For more information, see www.jstreet.org.
Photo: Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev and former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at the J Street summit in San Francisco, June 7, 2014. Eric A. Gordon/PW