Palestinian statehood: US Jews-for-peace split on tactics

September 26, 2011
Sarah Benton

No Partner for Peace? Reflections on the Limitations of J Street and the Jewish American Peace Camp During the Campaign for Palestinian Statehood

By Chisda Magid

Editor’s Note: A conflict has been building slowly among peace groups over whether it is fair to claim that J Street is more interested in maintaining its legitimacy within the Jewish establishment than in supporting the peace camp in Israel. In sharing this article, we do not mean to align ourselves with one side or another in that conflict. Rather, we are doing what Tikkun does best — providing a space in which those who support peace, justice, and security for Israel and Palestine can discuss strategy in a respectful manner. We welcome J Street activists and others to address this and similar concerns (e.g., the concern some have voiced that J Street’s lobbying effort in Congress this year was directed primarily toward supporting a resolution for a new aid package for Israel). Send us your reactions to this entire discussion, please. Meanwhile, Tikkun has started a petition calling on the United States to support full membership of Palestine in the UN and simultaneously reaffirm Israel as a Jewish state. The petition makes clear that this “Jewish state,” like the Palestinian state, must be human rights-affirming and eliminate all forms of discrimination against religious, national, and ethnic minorities. Both Palestine and Israel should, however, be able to give preferential treatment in immigration to their own majority ethnic/national group. Read and sign it here.

The legacy of Mahmoud Abbas is now dependent largely on the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood. Despite the United States’ intention to veto the resolution in the Security Council, and despite threats of fiscal retaliation from the U.S. Congress, Abbas has remained firm in his intentions. He is even considering forcing the United States to exercise the embarrassing veto twice, once before the General Assembly vote and once afterward.

Despite the often-touted success of Salam Fayyad’s state-building exercise in the West Bank, the argument for statehood does not rest on international law. Rather, the Palestinian initiative reflects the desperation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as it faces decreased domestic credibility and continued Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land with the tacit support of the United States. Abbas, who has repeatedly threatened to resign or dissolve the PNA, can either keep sitting on his hands until retirement or pursue this “bold and innovative” diplomatic initiative, to borrow from J Street’s language.

There is no legal basis for the PNA’s claims of Palestinian statehood, as they do not meet the basic international criteria for a state. The four criteria, which were first established in the Montevideo Conference, for statehood are 1) a territory, 2) a population, 3) a functioning government, and 4) the capacity to conduct foreign relations. The Palestinian polity remains divided between two noncontiguous areas that are governed separately by opposing political parties with no coordination in domestic or foreign policy. The PNA remains accountable to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents a population that lives largely outside of the borders of the proposed Palestinian state. And Fayyad’s institution building, while successful in some regards, has created an aid-dependent, bloated, and largely inactive bureaucracy (wages make up over 90 percent of the PNA’s budget), not the institutions of a functioning state. The only condition for statehood that has arguably been met is a territory, namely the pre-1967 lines, for which Abbas—with support from the Obama administration and the Jewish American peace camp, including J Street—has been unsuccessful in gaining Israeli recognition. Recently released UN and International Monetary Fund reports argue that “only so much … can be done in conditions of prolonged occupation, unresolved final status issues, [and] no serious progress on a two-state solution and a continuing Palestinian divide.” In short, the restrictions of the Occupation do not allow for the emergence of a Palestinian state. That said, the Palestinian justification for this UN initiative has never been to affirm the existence of a Palestinian state nor to suddenly bring about its existence. Rather, UN recognition would reaffirm the international community’s commitment to creating a Palestinian state, regardless of the intentions of the Netanyahu government.

Recognition would also help level the playing field between Israel and Palestinians in negotiations, which would be between two states with equal international standing seeking to address unresolved disputes. The Palestinians have unenthusiastically acceded to U.S. mediation because there has never been an alternative that Israel would accept. The Jewish American peace camp has mostly supported various formulas for peace and has embraced the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, except for J Street, whose support for the U.S. veto suggests that J Street may be more concerned about the U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process than a resolution to the conflict.

The UN vote was not inevitable.
Abbas and his associates do not seem thrilled about the prospect of a major diplomatic row with the United States, especially in light of sincere congressional threats to cut off at least non-security-related aid. Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, the PNA position has been that there can no be negotiations while settlement-building continues on contested land. The demand for a cessation in settlement construction coincides with international and U.S. demands, as well as past Israeli commitments. A week ago Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aid, informed the press that Abbas remained firm in his decision to pursue Palestinian statehood at the UN “given that the Israeli side still refuses to acknowledge clear terms of reference and is building settlements.” Netanyahu’s continued intransigence on this issue was reaffirmed only yesterday when it was reported that he refused Shimon Peres’s suggestion that the government publicly accept only the concept of a Palestinian state equal in size to the Occupied Territories, thereby avoiding any discussion of specific borders. Netanyahu’s position leaves the Palestinians with little recourse, and forces the Obama administration into an awkward position of vetoing Palestinian statehood while supporting it in principle, and doing nothing tangible to bring about its existence.

There has been near international consensus on the need to halt settlement construction since the earliest mention of a Palestinian UN bid for statehood. That has also been Abbas’s one precondition for entering into direct negotiations. Obama and many of his supporters, including J Street, have previously chided Israel for its refusal to halt settlement construction in this context. Obama suggested that the settlements are illegal and counterproductive in his famed Cairo speech in 2008 and later at the UN. Israel continued building and granting tenders for future construction as the Obama administration either became distracted by a series of fiercely partisan domestic battles or became disinterested. Abbas was left sitting on his hands, waiting for a change in Israeli or U.S. policy while stubbornly maintaining the same position: no negotiations until there is a full cessation of settlement construction (including in annexed East Jerusalem). There have been no direct negotiations in a year and settlement growth has continued unabated. This is the context of the Palestinian proposal for statehood at the UN.

This will be an embarrassment for the Obama administration.

Regardless of whether or not the state of Palestine meets the international standards for statehood, a U.S. veto of such a proposal in the Security Council would be a huge blow to U.S. credibility in the Arab world and a major embarrassment for Obama in the presidential election season. Any U.S. calls for Palestinian patience seem particularly absurd in the context of the Arab Spring and ongoing NATO support for the Libyan rebels. There is no doubt that regardless of how the Obama administration chose to vote on the Palestinian proposal, Obama would suffer a domestic backlash. Ads have already gone up in New York City declaring that Obama is anti-Israel, despite his firmly conveyed intentions to veto Palestinian statehood regardless of the proposal’s language. Obama has done nothing to pressure the Israelis to abide by past agreements and established U.S. policy. The ads play on an imagined caricature of Obama instead of reflecting Obama’s actual behavior. Obama should follow through with his own inspiring words instead of futilely trying to find common ground with conservatives.

Nearly a year ago Obama stood before the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York and called for a continued settlement freeze, adding that he hoped by next year, this September, a Palestinian state would be welcomed into the UN. There is a common theme emerging among left-wing supporters of the U.S. veto to explain the blatant contradiction between Obama’s speeches and his current position. Namely, they say, soaring rhetoric aside, now is not the time for action. If Abbas would only wait until after the U.S. and Israeli elections in 2012, their argument goes, then he will get his partners for peace. This position gives the Netanyahu government exactly what it always wanted: time.

Time is a limited resource.

During the 2010 Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Hamas, which was excluded, argued that the passage of time was in the Palestinian interest. Growing international consensus in support of the Palestinian cause, Palestinians’ increasing experience in governance, the development of Palestinians’ state institutions, and the demographic trend all seemed to suggest a strengthening of the Palestinian position over time. The passage of time may strengthen Hamas’s position vis-à-vis Fatah, since diplomatic stagnation and existing economic fragility will lead to increased frustration with Fatah’s cooperative approach to Israel. Palestinian sentiment has historically oscillated between diplomatic and confrontational strategies, and will inevitably return to confrontation if there isn’t any diplomatic progress. Like many of us, Palestinians are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in elections, and with the ongoing stagnation on the diplomatic front, Palestinian support is shifting away from diplomacy in favor of violence. This trend does not bode well for Abbas and Fatah since they have come to symbolize the cooperative diplomatic strategy. So, while Hamas may have a lot to gain from the ongoing stagnation, Israel seems to be the most comfortable with the status quo.

Increased stability in the West Bank, achieved through Israeli-PNA security cooperation and the blockade of Gaza, has kept things relatively quiet as the region continues to shake from mass peaceful demonstrations and violent popular rebellions. In this context many Israelis, and at least the Netanyahu government, have become wedded to the status quo and see no reason to make any concessions or risk upheaval, even in the context of a bilateral peace process. The Obama administration, with J Street’s support, consistently avoids the difficult steps that would actually pressure Israel into abiding by its international obligations.

Abbas is aware that the Occupation entrenches itself over time and diminishes the possibility of a viable state that would fulfill the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. The Occupation achieves that by controlling and restricting Palestinian society and the economy, expanding and entrenching the settlement enterprise, appropriating Palestinian land, and continuing its “Judaization” project in East Jerusalem. Without external pressure, Netanyahu prefers to keep delaying any uncomfortable concessions. That is why, in this context, vetoing the Palestinian bid for statehood tacitly supports Netanyahu’s comfortable status quo and prevents any significant progress in the peace process. If Abbas passes into our collective memory while sitting on his hands it will spell the end of Israel’s best opportunity for peace through a two-state solution.

Is J Street still a partner for peace?
In its short but meteoric rise to relevance in the American Jewish community, J Street has attempted to expand the Jewish American peace camp by taking nuanced positions and poaching supporters from traditional Jewish organizations like AIPAC. In its recent policy paper against the UN vote and support of a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the UN Security Council, J Street argued that it is aligned “with the position of most established institutions in the American Jewish community.” That fact should not be a point of pride for J Street because it symbolizes their failure to create a new pro-peace voice in the Jewish American community. There is a major discrepancy between J Street’s repeated call for “bold and creative action” in pursuit of a two-state solution and its position paper defending the U.S. veto.

A statement issued by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami argues that UN membership would not fundamentally alter the state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but recognizes “that the Palestinian approach to the UN is a legal and nonviolent attempt to achieve self-determination.” In the current dismal state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Ben-Ami’s argument is an unsatisfactory rebuttal to this bold, multilateral Palestinian initiative, and seems aimed only at justifying Obama’s previously stated intentions rather then advocating for the best approach according to J Street’s own stated goals. Obama faces legitimate domestic political repercussions that my prevent him from fulfilling his own vision of welcoming the state of Palestine in to the UN at this time, but it is not J Street’s role to try to justify his action to the Jewish American peace camp. While I support Obama as my president, here being Pro-Obama is not necessarily the same as being pro-peace.

There have been ample examples put forth concerning the benefits of U.S. and Israeli support for Palestinian statehood in the UN, including the need to strengthen Fatah against the shared enemy of all three parties, Hamas. A U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the current setting is unwise. J Street’s support of this position is indefensible if it wants to remain a dominant voice within the Jewish American peace camp, let alone take a lead role in the community. If this is what American Jews can expect from J Street, then “pro-Israel, Pro-Obama” may be a more appropriate tagline than the group’s current claim to be “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”

Chisda Magid graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University/Bloomington in 2008. He was an intern at J Street in Washington, D.C., in 2010. He presently lives in New York City.

Recognize Palestine! Recognize Israel!
Tikkun/The Network of Spiritual Progressives

The Palestinian people are seeking recognition at the U.N. now that Israel’s ultra-right-wing government has refused to freeze settlements and refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is part of the Palestinian government.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. We are hopeful that UN recognition of Palestine will convince Israel to freeze its expansion of settlements in the areas that were part of Palestine pre-1967, and negotiate in good faith to create a Palestinian state and a settlement of all remaining issues that is just and also provides security for Israel and Palestine.

Mindful of the ways that the U.N. has in the past been perceived as one sidedly anti-Israel, we believe that the recognition of Palestine should be accompanied by a statement re-affirming Israel’s right to security. Even though there is a major difference in power between the two sides, the inner experience of Israel and of its supporters around the world is one of insecurity and fear, so it’s important to acknowledge that fear by offering Israel, one of the greatest military powers in the world, real reassurance while supporting Palestinian recognition and membership in the U.N.

Yet we also want to acknowledge the suffering of the Palesitnian people under Israeli Occupation, and for that reason we are no longer willing to watch passively as Israel continues into its 44th year of the Occupation of the West Bank as well as its four year old blockade of Gaza. So in the hopes that U.N. recognition will be a stepping stone toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict, we encourage you to sign the petition below which we will deliver to the U.S. government and to the United Nations.

If you are interested in learning more about the two-sidedness of the struggle, and the long-term strategy which we believe is necessary to bring a lasting peace, please read Rabbi Michael Lerner’s newest book Embracing Israel/Palestine. It will be in book stores in late November, and can be ordered in advance from Barnes and Noble or Amazon on line. Meanwhile, please sign the petition below!

Petition: Recognize Palestine! Recognize Israel!
We call upon the government of the United States, Israel, and all other countries to recognize Palestine and to support its admission as a full and equal member of the world community into the United Nations. At the same time we call upon the Palestinian people, as well as all others, to reaffirm Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and free from terrorism as a Jewish state that respects the rights of all its citizens and offers them equal protection under the law and does not impose any religious practices on any of its citizens.

We call upon both Israel and Palestine to give equal rights in protection, employment, voting, housing, education, health, and all other government-supported activities and programs to all their minority citizens.

We call upon Israel and Palestine to negotiate (in a spirit of open-heartedness, generosity, and understanding that both sides’ well-being is intrinsically tied to the well-being of the other side and the other side’s perception that it is being dealt with respectfully and justly) a lasting peace, to affirm each other’s right to exist, and, to make territorial swaps of equivalent territory and strategic and economic value — based on the pre-1967 border of Israel, as part of creating borders agreed upon by both sides.
And once an agreement has been reached between Israel and Palestine, we call upon all other states in the region to recognize and create warm relationships with Israel and Palestine and to take necessary steps toward the creation of a Middle East common market.

An Open Letter to the American Jewish Community
September, 2011

J Street recently released a policy paper endorsing a U.S. veto of a possible Palestinian application for membership in the United Nations. We urged the Palestinians to defer their application and called for strong American and international leadership to jumpstart a meaningful diplomatic initiative leading to a two-state solution.

J Street’s position on the possible Security Council resolution aligns with the position of most established institutions in the American Jewish community. Yet, we diverge over the institutional energy spent trying to sway a few more countries to vote against the Palestinians at the UN, to lobby Congress to end aid to the Palestinians and to place sole blame for the present diplomatic stalemate on the Palestinians.
Our time and resources as leaders of the American Jewish community are far better spent pressing for active, meaningful steps to achieve the two-state solution to the conflict. The two-state solution is essential to Israel’s security, to its democratic character, and to its commitment to core Jewish values of justice, freedom and democracy.

We understand that some in the Jewish community fear the risks associated with pursuing peace through a two-state solution, including the long-term Palestinian commitment to peace and the possibility of rockets from the West Bank. We take those risks very seriously. But we know that the status quo spells still greater risk for Israel, including increasing international isolation and the prospect of needing to choose between being a Jewish national home and a democracy. We stand with those in the Israeli military, intelligence and political communities who believe that the dangers of maintaining an increasingly untenable status quo outweigh the risks of pursuing two states.

A Jewish and democratic Israel at peace with its neighbors and living within borders negotiated by the parties and recognized by the international community is the Israel that we all want. To achieve it, we need a major campaign in the American Jewish community reflecting the urgency of the moment, a campaign that conveys to members of our community, to policy makers in Washington and to our family and friends in Israel the existential necessity of acting now to achieve two states before it is too late.

For these reasons, J Street now calls on our colleagues in the organized Jewish community to join us in using our collective abilities to press immediately for tangible movement toward a two-state solution. It is not enough, however, to simply say that we believe in peace and negotiations. There must be substance and action behind that language – and a major commitment by our community to make this work a critical priority. And that requires urgent action from us all.

We must call on the Administration to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to achieve peace and to work vigorously to provide public and bi-partisan political support for such efforts.

We must make clear to the US Congress that there is broad consensus in the American Jewish community behind the two-state solution and deep concern that it is in danger of being over-run by history. That requires the concerted effort of the mainstream of the organized Jewish community.

Our communal advocacy must move beyond merely calling for direct negotiations to promoting the sustained and meaningful engagement of the American government and other international actors in an urgent and relentless effort to achieve a two-state solution. Third parties have played and can again play a critical role in conflict resolution (for example, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the Dayton Accords and the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland).

We must make clear to American politicians, particularly in Congress, that being pro-Israel does not require cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for approaching the UN. Such a move will hurt Israel’s interests by undermining moderate Palestinian leadership and defunding productive security cooperation.

Finally, when we speak out strongly against Palestinian actions that set back the cause of peace, as we must, we should speak out as well against Israeli policy that does the same, for instance, the relentless expansion of those settlements that threatens to render a two-state solution impossible.

The effort we must now undertake is vital not just for Israel but for us as a Jewish community. By working to preserve an Israel that aligns with our Jewish and democratic values, we also help the rising generation of Jewish Americans develop a deep bond, rooted in their values and tradition, both with their community and with the national homeland of their people.

Is that not a worthy task for our entire community to pursue?

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