Founded 18 months ago to provide a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" perspective on the conflict in the Middle East, advocacy organization J Street hosted its first annual conference this week in Washington, D.C. From a growth perspective, the event was a smashing success. Over 1,500 people attended; the Obama administration took the outfit seriously enough to dispatch National Security Adviser Jim Jones to give a speech, and despite considerable pressure from the Jewish right to freeze out the group, 148 members of Congress agreed to join the host committee, with about half a dozen members participating personally. J Street has its share of critics among the Jewish establishment, but it has survived and even thrived, attracting extensive media coverage and giving the large number of left-wing Jewish political activists and writers a banner under which to gather. In all, the conference was a successful debut event for a group that’s achieved a great deal under difficult circumstances and in a very short time.
Which leads to the awkward point that prospects are bleak for the comprehensive peace two-state solution that J Street supports.
I don’t like to reduce politics to biography, but I suspect one factor in making me a J Street Jew is that, as for many American Jews, my peak period of Zionist indoctrination came during the Hebrew school years around my bar mitzvah -- roughly corresponding with Yitzhak Rabin’s term in office as Israel's Prime Minister. During the Rabin years, nobody could question that Israel’s leaders were willing to take political risks on their nation's behalf (though some could and, of course, did question the adequacy of the concessions Israel was prepared to make for peace). Indeed, Rabin literally sacrificed his life for the peace process. His successor, Shimon Peres, went on to lose the next election to Benjamin Netanyahu, who ran on a platform of opposition to the Oslo Accords.
But Netanyahu's first stint in office was after my time. During the heyday of my Hebrew school and synagogue attendance, Rabin and Labor were in power. Their coalition also included Shas, an ultra-orthodox party that was more skeptical of the peace process, and Meretz, a leftist party that was even more sympathetic to the Arabs than Labor. For a Reform congregation in Greenwich Village, it was simple and unproblematic to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace. With that coalition in power, the ideological pairing seemed natural and obvious.
The Rabin/Peres era would have been a good time for a political organization like J Street. Instead, the United States was left with the vast political clout of the right-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a small cluster of fairly ineffectual and largely depoliticized left-wing organizations. If Bill Clinton had more political running room in which to operate, perhaps U.S. policy would have been different and maybe a final agreement on the conflict could have been made before things started to fall apart. Perhaps. Again, one can imagine that J Street could have played a vital role at the end of the Clinton administration, when Ehud Barak seemed both interested in an ambitious final settlement but reluctant to make certain painful concessions in order to get it.
Today, though, the Israeli political situation is very different. Both Labor and Meretz are shattered shells of their former selves. The right-wing Likud Party has split into two factions, and the more moderate arm, now known as Kadima, is out of power. The rump Likud, led once again by Netanyahu, is governing in alliance with Yisrael Beitenu, essentially a European-style far-right party for whom Arab Israelis serve as the demonized other.
Combine that with Hamas' rise and the general deterioration of the Palestinian political situation, and the region needs much more than a gentle nudge to seal the deal on peace.
That much seems generally recognized. So the Obama administration wisely decided to set more limited short-term goals. On the one hand, the administration is pressing for some kind of Palestinian political resolution in order to create a unit with which Israel can negotiate. And on the other hand, it is asking for a freeze of Israeli settlement activity. Such a freeze would serve a triple purpose. First, a freeze could potentially cultivate Arab good will. Second, it would buy time for the two-state solution by reducing the extent to which Arab land gets carved up and populated by Israelis. Third, a settlement freeze would demonstrate, politically, that Israel can take on its most radical citizens and that the United States is able to deliver Israeli concessions. The strategy was a good if controversial one, and the Obama administration took a lot of heat for it. J Street, meanwhile, played its intended role of giving the administration political cover, issuing policy statements in support of Obama’s position and gathering signatures to demonstrate Jewish support for Obama’s approach.
But despite Obama’s courageous stand, Netanyahu said no to these requests. And politically, he’s getting away with it. Israeli opinion interpreted the standoff more as an example of Obama being bad for Israel than of Netanyahu being bad for the U.S.-Israel alliance. And just to underscore the point that his government has no interest in pursuing a "pro peace" vision of Zionism, Netanyahu had his ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, deliberately snub the J Street conference and diss the group publicly.
Israeli intransigence is hardly the only barrier to peace at this point. But the critical thing a pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby in the United States needs is a viable Israeli peace camp as a partner. No such partner is to be found in the current government. And as Gershom Gorenberg observed last week there’s not even a robust Israeli left in opposition. Optimistically, this situation can change over time. But one of the premises of the J Street point of view is precisely that time is running out on the two-state solution. Time, in other words, is both needed and possibly not at hand. So what should have been a happy and successful occasion for a new important group was, to me, more a reminder of what might have been had the work been done earlier, in more promising, more optimistic times.