Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Way to J Street

Because of the way the system has been imposed, and for what seems like an eternity, we have been tied down to the same old tired and strung out "peace processes" that has many who are seeking a just solution to perhaps the biggest conflict in contemporary society today, left feeling jaded about the whole discord of Israelis and Palestinians. We have heard it from the most weary (by that I mean the passive normal citizen) that there is no peaceful solution to this friction and that the only way to ever get some rest is to nuke it or just kill off one group (mostly the belligerent Arabs who don't know their place in this world). I distinctly remember a co-worker of mine, when he caught a glimpse of the title of a book I was reading, called Middle East Illusions: Including Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (by Noam Chomsky), objected that there will never be any peace in that tumultuous region and that they have been fighting for centuries and they will continue that path until they all wind up killing each other (Note: he only caught the subtitle, not the header.). Of course not one to back down, I contended that that attitude was rather defeatist and also a little misguided since history is filled with conflagrations that is not solely within the Middle East and that he omitted the glaring fact that the Orient (in the region in question) has been under the aegis of one empire to another that egged on civil wars. The point was over his (non scholar) head as he attested that it is a lost cause and that we should not expend any more energy on a people that is only going to implode.

Is he right? As of this point in time, he is not but who knows what the future holds. But we are only able to shape what we see before us today and we have to try to avoid such cataclysms that has dire consequences for the entire world's population. While my co-worker can direct our attention to the back-and-forth bombings in Gaza as proof of this, he is only simplifying a narrative that is too complex to be fit into a sound byte or a two-minute news blurb on television. Right now, we barely have any coverage on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and I barely even noticed anything on the Canadian news hub about an ex-President's visit with a leader of Hamas. Now it may not seem to be big news to Canadians but this is a major step towards a comprehensive dialogue that might bridge the gap between the occupier and the occupied. But how is my co-worker meant to demur on this latest act without even knowing that it occurred?

It comes as no surprise that this step by Jimmy Carter is being brandished a no-no by many who claim to be supportive of peace between the two parties in the conflict. As a matter of fact, Barack Obama lambasted President Carter for meeting with Khaled Meshaal, inculcating us that Hamas is "not a state" and that it is a "terrorist organisation". To double it up, Obama emphatically stated (yet again) that he would never meet with Hamas unless it recognises Israel, blah blah blah. The same old tired rhetoric that we have been imbibed with for decades now. Terrorists this, Israel's security that. Not a damned thing has changed (except for those pretty settlements in the West Bank), no matter how many times Obama stresses that he is for it.

So what of it? What are we to do now since this power disparity has been so entrenched that we have been unable to move the boot of Israel from the Palestinians' necks? The (true) left has been applying their voice but they are largely ignored because, as Norman Finkelstein calmly stated it (when Tony Judt labeled him as such), it is the "loonie left" that advocates the position that Israel should give up its territories and its annexations for the purpose of achieving peace and normalisation with its neighbours. And because the media has been couched with the bigwigs of philanthropy that finds their "donations" into the favoured candidates who confess to be "pro-Israel", we have been moved rightward and that the only effective opposition that they afford the time to is one that is "centrist" or even slightly right-of-centre. The right-wing has so demonised the left as being supporters of communism that the dissidence is largely deflected onto the alternative media. What counts for skeptical journalism these days? After all, we have had over three months after Annapolis and the West Bank is in a shambles (for the Palestinians); Hebron is under siege by more and more settlers; the wall has not moved an inch; the checkpoints remain intact and normal Palestinian life is rather abysmal compared to their Israeli counterparts IN THE WEST BANK. Mats Svensson describes the disconnect:

"Ma'ale Adumim [a settlement with 28 000 settlers], which previously did not exist in our modern history, is soon completed. People live there with access to water, swimming pools, olive groves outside the window, schools, clinics and perhaps most importantly--access to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv just 60 minutes away. Many live in Ma'ale Adumim and work in Tel Aviv. It is cheaper that way, because the land is free."

These illegal usurpers are living the high life on bulldozed Palestinian land and what is a pro-Israel supporter to do? Compare this leisure to the horror stories of Palestinian life where they are held at checkpoints for hours and hours and sometimes are not even let through. Is this the life that they have to look forward to? Where is the sense of outrage that this is no acceptable as applicable to human rights, something that we have been drunk on ever since the Tibetan outrage and the urge to boycott the Beijing Olympics? You would think that occupations would be the du jour of today but I guess if you're a Palestinian, you do not deserve the recognition that Tibetans are warranted.

As we talk and talk, Israel just continues to approve more housing, effectively shutting off any peace proposal for a two-state solution. Many will say that this was the point all along and who can say that they are wrong here? Having been an espoused anti-Zionist, it has always been affirmed within me that Israel's leaders are not content with what they have, hence the refusal for a constitution or even final borders, and are willing to sacrifice anything to get what they want (as much land as possible). This only evokes David Ben-Gurion's words back when European Jews were being slaughtered at a massive scale by the rise of the Nazi party:

"If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second - because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people." [One Palestine, Complete pg 394]

That was the price they were willing to pay for their "Jewish homeland"; they were willing to tolerate the most odious of statesmen just to achieve their goal. It is no different today: why we have an ex-Prime Minister and current leader of the Likud party boasting that Israel has benefited greatly from the 9/11 attacks. This puts the Christopher Ketcham story into greater perspective.

Again, where is the outrage? Where is the anger? Or more importantly, where is the coverage? (Incidentally, it cannot be ignored that a PNAC paper, called the "Clean Break" Plan, authored by the biggest neoconservatives we have grown to know and love was written for Netanyahu when he was in office.)

Well some people have had enough of the monopoly that the likes of AIPAC have had over foreign policy (and if you doubt that just glimpse at Walt and Mearsheimer's best-seller). The campaign of smears and kowtowing and bribery, along with the backing of every failed initiative that only prolongs the agony for Israel's citizens and its neighbours, is getting too tiresome and it is getting old. The lynching of Carter has not worked and his book is still regarded very highly. Walt and Mearsheimer have been blacklisted but they still receive an audience and the apartheid analogy is gaining credence and even getting into a tuffle at the University of Toronto (over freedom of speech and so forth). Zionism, as has been revealed, is on the wane and Israel is of less importance to the younger Jews in the Diaspora and some do see their hardline stance in the negative.

Capitalising on this is the new lobby, named J Street. Now this new organisation is getting coverage; from Mother Jones, to the Washington Post, to Jim Lobe at IPS, and its making headway in the blogosphere, mainly from the Jewish circles such as Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein, Dan Fleshler and of course the co-founder of the group Daniel Levy. This is exciting but you do have to try to reserve yourself. This new group aims to be a counterpoint to the disastrous legacy that has conflated Jewish into one pool that to be pro-Israel is to be supportive of every aggressive action that testifies to Israel's staunch stance on democracy. Not only that, it also will do what other liberal Jewish groups have been unable to do and that is back candidates in office or attempt to delegitamise a candidate that is seen as having a deleterious record on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here is J Street:

"Neoconservative, right-wing Jewish leaders and radical Christian Zionists have turned their definition of “pro-Israel” into a driving force in the American political process... These voices do not…represent the mainstream of American Jews or the broader community that cares about Israel or American interests in the Middle East. Their efforts have skewed American policy, undermined Israeli and American interests, and constrained the domestic political and public debate about American foreign policy.

It is time for the mainstream of Americans–Jews and others–to establish a bold, political voice that advocates for the best interests of the U.S. and Israel, including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps, and for American policy that will lead to real security for Israelis, Americans and the entire Middle East."

Is there a call for rejoice? I would call for one. It is well past time that another group would rise up and challenge the narrative here. J Street may be just the group to do that and you would have to agree that this is probably the best timing possible. The AIPAC hold is getting shaky and J Street might just be able to swoop where AIPAC is weakening. In addition, AIPAC has made plenty of fodder in past campaigns and J Street has a member by the name of Howard Dean, who has felt the wrath of AIPAC when he called for a more "balanced" approach to the I-P conflict which got him in the doghouse. Others who are tired of AIPAC's hegemony might lean towards J Street and take on the power of the lobby. In fact, the members are rather presitigous:
"There are of course leaders of the main American Jewish peace groups. There are rabbis and academics. But most important there are heavy hitter political donors (Alan Solomont), policy wonks (Rob Malley), U.S. ambassadors to Israel (Samuel Lewis), high level political operatives (Eli Pariser of Moveon), Hollywood liberals (Robert Greenwald), business leaders, George Soros’ top aide (Morton Halperin), and even a former Republican senator (Lincoln Chafee) and former Congressman (Tom Downey). The major political donors and business leaders are critical to provide the funding necessary to have an impact on political campaigns." [Quoted from Richard Silverstein's blog]

The other founding member Jeremy Ben-Ami stated that

"American voices... from the far Right... have claimed that the only way to be pro-Israel is to support military responses to political problems, to refuse to engage one's adversaries in dialogue and to put off the day of reckoning when hard compromises will be required to achieve a peaceful and secure future for Israel and the entire Middle East.

These are not the kind of smart, tough views that serve the long-term interests of the state of Israel, of the United States – or frankly, the American Jewish community.

Voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel's core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally recognized borders."

In the end it really is a matter of who can best fit the pro-Israel mark. Is it going to be the doves or the hawks? As of today, we are seeing each Presidential candidate (and primary candidate) effectively out-hawking each other on the Israel question in order to fit the "pro-Israel" description. Gershom Gorenberg analysed this back in January:

"Being pro-Israel does not require backing the most bellicose possible Israeli position, anymore than being "pro-American" requires backing the war in Iraq.

To be pro-Israel certainly doesn't mean basing foreign policy on the alleged conflict of civilizations; the whole West locked in combat with the Islamic world.

Being pro-Israel certainly doesn't mean standing in the way of peace negotiations with Syria... support for Israel does not mean support for West Bank settlement, for the Whole Land of Israel, for endless occupation. The sane, mainstream Zionist vision was and is of a democratic state with a Jewish majority, with full rights for all citizens, a country living at peace with its neighbors. (That's what the country's declaration of independence says.) Rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the West Bank undermines democracy. Every additional settler makes withdrawal more difficult." {Emphasis mine]

Those who see that there is a price to pay for Israel's bellicose rule of Palestinians are trying to take back the reigns and make those who really support a Jewish state to take a step back and have a long hard look at where all of this is headed. Ehud Olmert famously said that unless there is a two-state solution that the Jewish state is in danger. Apparently others who do want Israel to continue to exist see it this way too because the longer we accept Israel's accelerating expropriation, the closer we get to facing a one-state battle (which I don't mind at all but could spark alarms for Zionists and post-Zionists out there).

The most common analogy I have encountered is the "drunk driver" analogy: you do not let friends drive drunk, so you cannot let Israel do something harmful that might end up killing not only those around it, but also itself. You do not urge them on or give them the keys. This is how many Jewish liberals are depicting this fight. AIPAC and other Christian Zionists are fueling the fire that is only making things worse for the world (remember that all roads lead to Jerusalem, which is occupied). J Street is hoping to be that guidance that would take the keys away from Israel and start telling them that this is not the way to get home. What is J Street's position?

"J Street calls for territorial compromises with the Palestinians based largely on the 1967 borders with reciprocal land swaps and the division of Jerusalem. The group also favors strong U.S. support for Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations and direct, high-level U.S. talks with Iran to address all issues of mutual concern, including ending Iranian opposition to Arab-Israeli peace efforts and its support for armed anti-Israel groups in Palestine and Lebanon."

Even though J Street is not going to be the saviour, it can be a major cog in the machine that ends up driving Israel back behind the Green Line. It is possible to apply pressure to Israel and see rewards. Eisenhower was successful and even President Carter was able to sign a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (who both ironically starve the Gazans). Israel's elite still does not want a repeat of those two episodes but many in the US (and in Israel) are starting to see that the current policy is bankrupt and it is a failure, so it's time to start something new (or start actually listening to the Palestinians).

I wholly support this initiave and I urge others to back it. Support it, send out the word, email others about it and even donate. You do not have to be Jewish to do so despite the fact that it is a Jewish group. It is they who have so much at stake at losing support for Israel's security and peace. Although I am a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and am rather ambivalent about the whole project considering it is a lobby that is meant to strengthen ties to Israel (yet again), it is also one lobby that is openly stating the word "occupation" and (genuine) support for a Palestinian state. Daniel Levy is no slouch and he honest about his intentions of a two-state solution. And with all the support from so many Jewish liberals, it is tough not to support the cause.

My only hope is that the Palestinian voice is not lost in all of this. But J Street seems to be the only major campaigner who has a strong enough voice to voice it for them in the forum of the US.

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