Ben Samuels writes in Haaretz, 20 April 2021,”J Street concluded their 12th annual conference on Monday, virtually hosting nearly 5,000 activists who listened to lawmakers, experts and activists discuss the current respective political moments in Israel and the United States, as well as the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The event served as a sort of victory lap for the pro-Israel, left-wing organization, whose leadership and staff frequently reiterated how the conference marked “a new day in Washington.” The organization likely views this moment, with a Democratic Congressional majority and a Democrat-occupied White House, as their moment to mobilize their constituents and amplify the voices of their allies in Washington, who are newly empowered to change the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The conference opened Sunday with a focus on the current situation on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, the three leading Israeli left-wing lawmakers, stated their case to their American-Jewish audience.
They drew comparisons between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the electoral defeat of Donald Trump while calling for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. They also highlighted America’s fight for social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement and cautioned against the rise of far-right extremists within the government. Their remarks, however, did not acknowledge the political machinations and sacrifices they would need to make in order to replace Netanyahu.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used his speech to J Street to deliver a message to the Biden administration and a potentially sympathetic American-Jewish audience. He lobbied for the administration to remove the PLO from the terrorism list pursuant to the Congress Anti-Terrorist Act of 1987, and for J Street to push the U.S. government to repeal any laws prohibiting further enhanced U.S.-Palestinian ties.
For his part, Abbas vowed to remove any Palestinian obstacles, potentially referring to the Palestinian Authority’s payments to Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons. He also committed to holding general elections next month while respecting rule of law, transparency and democracy — a claim that has been met with skepticism from many Palestinian citizens, not to mention political rivals.
The Palestinian leader also reiterated his support for a two-state solution and his readiness to resume peace negotiations with Israel under the necessary preconditions — a claim backed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said Abbas could resolve this conflict today if both parties came to the table.
The conference notably held a session on creative paths toward a two-state solution, dedicating a session to the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian confederation as a means to achieve this. J Street emphasized that they remain advocates of the two-state solution, describing confederation as a two-state solution in itself, rather than an alternative. “We’re not getting to two states with old thinking and approaches,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said.
A shift in tone
The conference took a markedly different tone when transitioning to the current American political moment. Addressing the confab were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who warned against the politicization of pro-Israel support in the United States. Their presence and message bolstered J Street in representing its stances as those of the majority among the congressional majority.
A number of up-and-coming Democratic lawmakers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, addressed the crowd, including Sen. Jon Ossoff and Reps. Peter Welch, Jan Schakowsky, Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, Abigail Spanberger and Sara Jacobs. Each spoke about the importance of evolving U.S.-Israel relations, adding nuanced voices from figures that are not considered firebrands or radicals.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who has been focused on political organizing since his failed presidential run, noted that no organization had a bigger impact on his time as a lawmaker during his remarks. J Street has “continued to perfect some of the best practices in strengthening our democracy,” he said.
The conference’s second day took on a notably more urgent tone concerning the United States’ role in influencing Israeli policy through pressure. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the most noteworthy progressive senators in Congress, each called for the potential restriction of U.S. military aid to Israel from being used in the occupied territories or in ways that undermine chances for peace.
They both directly blamed Netanyahu for the conflict’s deterioration, with Warren going so far as to urge Israeli lawmakers to put their differences aside for the sake of Israel’s interests in ousting the prime minister. Their remarks were echoed by other top progressive lawmakers who addressed the conference, including Reps. Joaquin Castro, Mark Pocan, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal and Alan Lowenthal. They each recounted why they are concerned with Israel’s behavior, and how the United States should hold Israel accountable.
Rep. Ro Khanna, for example, cited a recent article published by Nathan Thrall in the New York Review of Books, which was praised by former U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials alike. The article details how a Palestinian’s search for his son reveals the impact of decades of Israeli occupation on the West Bank. Haaretz obtained a letter Khanna sent his Congressional colleagues encouraging them to read Thrall’s “extraordinary article,” noting that it “deepens and enriches our understanding of Israel-Palestine today. It deserves our attention.”
Their respective comments mark the most public, pronounced and significant questioning to date from leading U.S. lawmakers on the matter of conditioning U.S. aid to Israel. Their remarks also come days after Rep. Betty McCollum introduced a House bill – alongside more than a dozen prominent lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar – specifying various actions Israel may not finance with U.S. taxpayer funding, while also calling for additional oversight of how aid is distributed.
J Street’s endorsement and inclusion of the bill in their advocacy work associated with the conference gives the legislation a co-sign that McCollum’s previous bills concerning Israeli actions toward Palestinians perhaps lacked in the past. While McCollum’s bill is unlikely to pass, the conference marked a notable moment in the public debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-Israel relationship, drawing criticism of Israeli policy out of the fringes and into the mainstream conversation. The remarks of key figures at the conference show that lawmakers and organizations are demonstrating their openness to rethinking the status quo.” This article is printed in its entirety.