In the 2012 elections, J Street, the relatively new pro-Israel lobby whose stated purpose is to promote a progressive peace agenda in the Middle East, says its PAC disbursed more than $1.8 million to candidates from 26 states, thus helping eight Senate and 63 House hopefuls win their races. Among the winners are the chairs and ranking members of five committees, including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Armed Services Committee, as well as chairs and ranking members of more than 30 subcommittees.
Within a mere five years of its establishment, J Street has gone a long way toward fulfilling its initial goal of becoming an alternative voice to the powerful, hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which reportedly has 12 full-time lobbyists and spends nearly $3 million annually on its efforts. At its annual conference, which ends today, J Street expects about 3,000 attendees — AIPAC’s drew 13,000. Still, the fledgling organization has succeeded in making room for welcome dissent within mainstream political debates about Israel, and it has begun to redefine what it means to be “pro-Israel” on Capitol Hill.
But J Street also has a deep-seated problem that it will need to address if it wants to continue being politically relevant.
Basically, J Street presents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in starkly binary terms: Either the rivals have to reach a two-state solution or disaster will ensue. Why disaster? Because entrenching the status quo, in which millions of Palestinians living in areas controlled by Israel are not citizens, would amount to an apartheid state, while any one-state solution would eventually lead to the demise of the Jewish majority. Both apartheid and the end of Israel as a Jewish state are, in J Street’s view, disastrous.
But J Street needs to start thinking outside this box. Many experts from across the political spectrum now say the two-state solution is no longer viable. Two decades after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo peace accords, more than 500,000 settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the settler lobby boasts a compliant Knesset coalition, and the Palestinians continue to be beset by deepening divisions. Notwithstanding the current negotiations initiated by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, if J Street does not want to find itself promoting an irrelevant political program, it will need to begin thinking about an alternative that guarantees both democracy and a certain strain of Zionism, but also advocates a single state in which Jews and Palestinians live together as equals.
Northern Ireland offers a real-life model of a just and equitable one-state solution because it accommodates ethno-national distinctions between citizens. In political science it’s called “consociationalism.”
Premised on collective and individual entitlements, a consociational government guarantees group representation, ensures power sharing in the executive branch and offers group vetoes. It could assure both the Israeli and the Palestinian communities that no important decision would be made without the broad consent of representatives of both groups. No less important is the notion of “parity of esteem,” one of the core concepts of the Northern Ireland peace process. It requires each side to respect the other side’s identity and ethos, including linguistic diversity, culture and religion.
In order to guarantee political equality to the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement assigned essentially equal status to two executive roles — the first and deputy first ministers. Each group has an equal number of legislative committee chairmanships, and membership balance on public bodies, including the judiciary and police forces. Israelis and Palestinians would have to create their own model, and at least initially, it might be good to add to this basic setup internal territorial partition of certain areas, but with porous borders.
Consociationalism offers a tenable framework for beginning to address the contradictions arising from Israel’s wish to concurrently sustain its Jewish character, control territory in which 4.5 million Palestinians live, and maintain a democratic system.
Granted, the odds appear to favor the long-standing, widely desired two-state solution. For J Street to switch to a one-state option would be like betting on a horse whose odds are 50 to 1, instead of the two-state horse’s 25 to 1. But the two-state horse is very old and there is little chance that it will ever win. The one-state is still a colt and just began its training.
The demographic reality calls upon J Street to choose between a strictly Jewish state and a democratic state. The question now is whether the new lobby will have the foresight and audacity to follow the footsteps of major Zionist intellectuals who supported a binational state — like the great philosopher Martin Buber and the founder and first president of Hebrew University, Judah Magnes — and take the road less traveled.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation. He can be reached through his website.