WASHINGTON — With US-Israel relations reaching new lows Saturday, supporters of the dovish J Street opened their annual conference in Washington with a plenary that pulled no punches revealing its disdain for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – or its support for US President Barack Obama’s new hardened stance following the recent Knesset elections.
“We are very glad to hear that the Obama administration is reconsidering its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” declared J Street founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami before a crowd of some 3,000.
Hours before the conference began, Obama delivered an interview to the Huffington Post, in which he stressed that the administration decided to “take [Netanyahu] at his word when he said that it [the creation of a Palestinian state] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”
In the interview, Obama ducked answering whether the US would block future attempts at the United Nations Security Council to vote on Palestinian statehood. In doing so, he added fuel to reports that he had warned Netanyahu in his post-election phone call that the US was considering lifting its automatic veto of such initiatives.
Ben-Ami offered strong support for such a move, calling on the US to put forward “with broad international support the parameters for a reasonable resolution of the conflict grounded in two states for two people. And at the United Nations, it’s time for the US to do more than block one-sided actions targeting Israel, which we believe it should. It’s time to support a Security Council resolution proactively laying down a marker for both sides as to how their conflict needs to end.”
He also said that the US must “take action to give meaning” to its statements that settlement activity is illegal.
Ben-Ami – like Obama’s interview earlier in the day – stressed that the change in Washington’s stance should not come at the expense of its traditional support for Israel’s defense. Ben Ami added that “it is time as well for the US to make clear that the Palestinians have tough decisions to make.”
Saturday night’s opening set a tone of bitter criticism of Netanyahu, particularly in light of his pre-elections statement denying support for a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as his election day warning that Arab voters were flocking to the polls as a way to motivate his own base.
“It’s anger and it’s pain we feel at having watched the prime minister of Israel use fear-mongering and scare tactics tinged with racism to claw his way to 23 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s elections,” Ben-Ami said, to cheers from the audience. “I know and I share the anger in this room at seeing the prime minister – in order to save his political life – confirm what so many long knew – his utter and complete opposition to Palestinian statehood and then to shamelessly and cynically try to walk it back.”
“I am still furious at the damage that has been done to the US-Israel relationship by the partisan gamesmanship of the prime minister, his ambassador and Speaker [of the House John] Boehner around his address to a joint session of Congress,” Ben-Ami added.
“We say to Prime Minister Netanyahu – who claims to speak for all the Jews of the world – no Mr. Prime Minister you do not speak for us,” he said to additional applause. “We do not agree with you. We do not agree with the course you are charting for Israel, and we will oppose what you stand for when we feel it is not in the best interests of the United States, of world Jewry or of the state of Israel.”
Ben-Ami’s speech also outlined a number of goals for the organization’s activists on the local level in coming days and months. J Street members will ask Jewish institutions to display maps of Israel that include the Green Line and to ensure that money donated to Jewish institutions “stays within Israel proper and doesn’t go over the Green Line to support settlements in occupied territory.”
At the same time, Ben-Ami stressed that J Street “respects the right of the Jewish people to a nation of their own” as well as “the right of the Palestinian people to a nation of their own.”
Speaking before Ben-Ami, J Street chairman Morton Halperin said emphasized – again to applause – that J Street would “continue to be among the leading and most effective opponents of BDS.”
The Saturday night event marked the opening of a conference that will continue through Tuesday, when J Street lobbyists will visit Capitol Hill to lobby for the organization’s legislative agenda – and in support of the Obama administration’s post-election “reevaluation.”
The administration signaled its support for the organization by sending White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to address the conference during its Monday afternoon plenary session. At the same plenary, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and ambassador and former US negotiator Martin Indyk will participate together in a panel, together with Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar.