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J Street: Do We Really Need Another Pro-Israel Lobby?
This week witnessed the online debut of a new, self-styled "pro-peace, pro-Israel" lobby dubbed J Street, and its affiliated political action committee, JStreetPAC. Purposely named after a fictional street in the nation’s capital in order to distinguish itself from the very real lobbyist row on K Street, it will be "filling a gap in the political map in Washington, D.C.," according to the founder and director of both organizations, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
In contrast to the hawkish American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), J Street says it represents the mainstream of pro-Israel voices who seek to "promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts peacefully and diplomatically" (www.jstreet.org). JStreetPAC will both endorse and financially support United States Senate and House candidates who share this vision.
As reported by Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, J Street plants to spend $1.5 million in its first year of operation (which pales in comparison to AIPAC’s $50 annual budget). It will be led by 100 American Jewish leaders and has already received the endorsement of two dozen prominent Israelis including former heads of the foreign ministry as well as military and intelligence officers.
In distancing itself from AIPAC and its like-minded supporters, Ben-Ami states, "Those voices 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."
That all sounds well and good. Unfortunately too many U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, senators and representatives have fallen victim to the proverbial "new direction" that many Israelis and their supporters have pledged to take, only to be later duped into backing peace plans and initiatives which are mere diplomatic machinations to maintain the status quo.
There is no better example of this than former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s "generous offer" to Yasser Arafat made at the December 2000 Camp David Summit hosted by President Clinton, in which he proposed ceding control of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Widely criticized for having rebuffed such an "unprecedented" proposal, Arafat was thereafter marginalized by the U.S. as punishment for not accepting Barak’s plan.
But as is so often the case with Israeli propositions, what was alleged to have been offered was quite different from what actually was.
Whereas Barak claimed to propose giving 96% of the West Bank back, in fact it was only between 78-81% (from an analysis by the Foundation for Middle East Peace). He conveniently omitted including parts of the West Bank Israel decided to annex for itself as well as East Jerusalem. In addition, Israel would still retain sovereignty over one-third of East Jerusalem and maintain complete control of the Haram al-Sharif, site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques.
Noam Chomsky wrote of the accord:
"The intended result is that an eventual Palestinian state would consist of four cantons on the West Bank: Jericho, the southern canton extending as far as Abu Dis (the new Arab ‘Jerusalem’), a northern canton including the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Jenin, and Tulkarm, and a central canton including Ramallah.
The cantons are completely surrounded by territory to be annexed to Israel. The areas of Palestinian population concentration are to be under Palestinian administration, an adaptation of the traditional colonial pattern that is the only sensible outcome as far as Israel and the US are concerned" (ZMag, 27 July 2000).
Israeli academic Dr. Tanya Reinhart:
"The only clear element of Barak’s plan in Camp David was the immediate annexation by Israel of about 10 percent of the West Bank land. These include the settlement blocks which are close to the center of Israel and in which there are already over 150,000 Israeli settlers. But the bigger fraud of Barak’s plan, which has not received any attention in the public debate, is the fate of the rest of the 90 percent which were supposedly designated to belong to the ‘Palestinian state’. The situation in these areas is easily visible today: These lands are cut up by 37 isolated settlements which were purposely built in the midst of the Palestinian population to enable future Israeli control of these areas. As a result, 2 million Palestinians are crowded in enclaves which consist of about 50 percent of the West Bank, and the other 40 percents are blocked by the defense array of some 40,000 settlers" (Yediot Aharonot, 8 July 2001).
[The above references and citations were taken from "Misrepresentation of Barak's offer at Camp David as 'generous' and 'unprecedented'" by Nigel Parry, The Electronic Intifada, 20 March 2002. Please see for additional details.]
Ehud Barak has since moved on. Acting as Israel’s defense minister, he is currently supervising the Gaza onslaught and collective punishment of its captive population through limitation of food, fuel and other necessary humanitarian supplies into the territory.
The image of Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman and current president, has also been carefully cultivated as being on the dovish-side; always advocating a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians if only he had the support of the Knesset. Yet as Israeli prime minister in 1996, he was the architect of the first massacre of civilians in Qana, Lebanon, where more than a hundred Lebanese civilians who took refuge at the UN headquarters there were slaughtered.
Robert Fisk, in his essay "Massacre in Sanctuary; Eyewitness" writes the following day, April 19, 1996, of what he observed:
"It was a massacre. Not since Sabra and Chatila had I seen the innocent slaughtered like this. The Lebanese refugee women and children and men lay in heaps, their hands or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disembowelled. There were well over a hundred of them. A baby lay without a head. The Israeli shells had scythed through them as they lay in the United Nations shelter, believing that they were safe under the world’s protection. Like the Muslims of Srebrenica, the Muslims of Qana were wrong.
Israel’s slaughter of civilians in this terrible 10-day offensive – 206 by last night – has been so cavalier, so ferocious, that not a Lebanese will forgive this massacre."
But the Israel did not give the Lebanese the chance to forgive or forget, because the second Qana massacre was committed by two other Israeli "doves," namely Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, 10 years later. In the ill-fated July 2006 war with Lebanon, 55 civilians were massacred in Qana, nearly half of them children (ironically, it is Ehud Olmert who is featured on J Street’s promotional video as the alternative to Israeli extremists).
So we have seen what the Israeli "doves" and "peacemakers" have brought to Palestine and Lebanon. This understandably makes one skeptical of any pro-Israel lobby that simultaneously claims to be pro-peace. But let us take a brief look at J Street’s own policy positions, taken directly from their website:
Israel-Palestine: The Two State Solution
The outlines of an agreement are by now well-known and widely accepted: Borders based on the 1967 lines with agreed reciprocal land swaps allowing Israeli incorporation of a majority of settlers as well as Palestinian viability and contiguity; a division of Jerusalem that is based on demographic realities, establishes the capitals of the two states, and allows freedom of access to all holy sites; robust security arrangements; and resolution of the refugee issue that focuses on resettlement in the new state of Palestine, financial compensation and assistance.
"Israeli incorporation of a majority of settlers"? "Demographic realities"? Is Ehud Barak’s "generous offer" being re-visited? Will "demographic realities" — a quaint euphemism for the annexation of large swathes of the West Bank and Jerusalem — lead to the Bantustan that Palestine is destined to become? Will the "robust security arrangements" include maintaining the myriad of checkpoints which obstruct access to hospitals, reunion of families and imposition of unnecessary hardship on all but the privileged West Bank settlers who are allowed unencumbered travel? And what of the separation/apartheid wall? Is the construction of this monstrosity, essentially designed to be a high-tech land grab, also supported by "pro-peace" J Street?
Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories have, for over forty years, been an obstacle to peace. They have drained Israel’s economy, military, and democracy and eroded the country’s ability to uphold the rule of law. Consistent US opposition to settlements should continue, and diplomatic tools such as monitoring and public declarations should continue to be applied.
What is written above is all that is mentioned on this issue. Of course, it says nothing about the illegality of all settlements in the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Golan Heights, as stipulated by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies). For the record, all U.S. presidents forced to deal with the Middle East conflict have voiced their perfunctory opposition to settlements, and all have been ignored. A principled position of J Street, should it truly be interested in peace, would be to unequivocally call for the dismantlement of all settlements.
Security and Terror
A cornerstone of any peaceful resolution of the conflict and two-state solution has to be the fulfillment of Palestinian security obligations and the cessation of terror. J Street will support efforts to hold the Palestinians to their commitments to prevent terror and violence that targets Israel and its citizens.
What about the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military in Gaza and beyond? The "targeted killings" and "administrative detentions" and bulldozing of homes which have become part of daily life? When will Israel be held to account for the displacement of civilians, the expropriation of lands, and the collective punishment meted out under its military occupation? All are flagrant violation of countless United Nations resolutions and ignored by J Street.
Other than a cursory mention of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative being a framework for peace, no direct reference was found on J Street’s website regarding the need for Israel to abide by UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from occupied territories and form the basis of any just settlement to the conflict.
Plainly stated, J Street is simply a pro-Israel lobby. Its "pro-peace" cover is just that. Its policy positions are no different than Barak’s 2000 proposal, falling short on all marks. It may provide suitable refuge for American politicians who cannot stomach AIPAC but who also cannot stomach criticizing Israel. The emergence of a lobby like J Street only provides a different means to the same end, making it all the more insidious.
Whether it is AIPAC on the "right" and J Street on "left" in the U.S. or Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres in Israel, they all sit at the same table and cut the same deals. All are pro-Israel, none are pro-peace.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at rbamiri at yahoo.com.