SAN FRANCISCO — At J Street’s national summit, which wrapped up here Sunday night, one question has been front and center: What do advocates for a two-state solution do now?
J Street was founded six years ago with the motto “pro-Israel, pro-peace” to lobby for the American government’s support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Initially treated as a pariah by many in the organized American Jewish establishment, the group has gained members and legitimacy in recent years. A sign of its arrival in the mainstream came last fall when American vice president Joseph Biden and leaders from across the Israeli political spectrum spoke at its Washington, D.C., conference.
But with the collapse of the latest round of peace talks J Street is being forced to grapple with the future direction of its advocacy, especially as the prospects for a negotiated two-state settlement look increasingly bleak.
‘Everyone has stuck their head into the ground like an ostrich’
“We’ve gone into hibernation,” Daniel Kurtzer, who served as the American ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005, told a crowd of several hundred during the conference’s opening night Saturday. “Everyone has stuck their head into the ground like an ostrich.”
J Street has responded to the recent suspension of talks by refocusing on three main objectives: encouraging United States president Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry to present their own framework for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, promoting continued American support for the Palestinian Authority following the Fatah-Hamas reunification deal, and ensuring any potential agreement between the P5+1 group of nations and Iran over their nuclear program is not blocked by Congress.
“The odds are that the hot issue in Middle East policy within the next three to four months is likely to be Iran,” J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami told The Times of Israel. “It’s not a matter of us pivoting, it’s really that that’s where the attention of the policy and political world will be.”
But whether or not the Iranian issue is becoming more relevant, Ben-Ami knows the group cannot dodge its primary purpose of promoting a two-state solution.
He said J Street would attempt to turn up the rhetorical heat and serve as an “alarm clock” for Israel, explaining patience was running out among the American Jewish public for the Israeli government to agree to a peace deal.
Jacob Plitman, president of the national student board of J Street U, the organization’s youth wing, was even clearer about the need to reconsider how J Street has been going about their advocacy.
“We are in a moment of deep strategic pivot, of deep, deep questioning of how we go about our two-state work because the previous model has proved to need adjustment,” Plitman said.
While Ben-Ami said J Street would not consider seeking to tie American aid to Israeli policy, he allowed that critical resolutions in the United Nations Security Council might have a constructive role to play.
“We’ve go to have a thorough review of American policy… we’re going to look at exactly what are the options that are available to the U.S. government,” Ben-Ami added.
Ben-Ami was stark in his rejection of any possibility that J Street would support any form of boycott or divestment from Israel, even if no progress is made toward a two-state solution.
‘We’re not changing out tactics to involve BDS, that’s just a red line’
“We’re not changing out tactics to involve BDS, that’s just a red line,” he said.
J Street was recently blocked from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations due to the objections of several right-wing groups who don’t considered it a pro-Israel organization. (J Street only garnered 17 of the conference’s 50 votes, largely from left-wing organizations.)
But despite J Street’s reputation as an organization on the left, Ben-Ami said he rejected that characterization. J Street, according to Ben-Ami, is only interested in attracting those who embrace both a two-state solution and Zionism.
“I don’t ever define J Street as progressive or left,” Ben-Ami said. “There should be organizations to our left and organizations to our right. We’re squarely in the middle of the conversation.”
Ben-Ami’s decision to largely stay the course following the failure of negotiations was simultaneously bolstered and undermined by the featured speakers on Saturday night. In addition to Kurtzer, opening night speakers Salaam Fayyad and Gabriela Shalev were pessimistic about the future of peace negotiations but said they held some hope J Street could move the dialogue in the right direction.
Fayyad, who resigned as Palestinian prime minister last year attributed the failure of peace talks to an “expectation gap” where the minimum the Palestinians were willing to accept exceeded the maximum the Israelis would offer.
“The more we try the wider the gap becomes and the more skeptical the public becomes of a two-state solution ever being recognized,” Fayyad said. “Without significant adjustment, the existing paradigm will not lead to a resolution anytime soon no matter how soon we hit the reset button on negotiations.”
‘The existing paradigm will not lead to a resolution anytime soon no matter how soon we hit the reset button on negotiations’
Fayyad also expressed skepticism that J Street’s current plan, also backed by Kurtzer, for United States to present its own negotiating framework, could succeed.
“My own sense is that conditions are not right at this very moment for that kind of intervention,” he said. “For a long time the idea of the United States coming up with its own parameters looked appealing — but let’s not forget Bill Clinton did that, and here we are.”
Shalev, the former Israeli ambassador the United Nations, said she thought the current Israeli government would be unable to make peace.
“The public in Israel is moving to the right and… nowadays I don’t think this is a viable possibility, to bring or even start negotiations,” she said.
For Ben-Ami and J Street, however, persistence is the name of the game — along with a hefty dose of hoping a two-state solution will come sooner rather than later.
“Ultimately we’re going to get there,” Ben-Ami said. “We’re hoping that by shortening the timeline of getting to that destination we can eliminate some of the bloodshed and the terror and the violence that is going to come in the interim.”