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

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.

Ma'ale Adumim

One of the largest West Bank settlements, Ma'ale Adumim. The continued construction of settlements in the occupied territories has been a significant impediment to peace talks between Israel and the PNA, as well as a source of diplomatic frustration between Washington and Jerusalem. Credit: Creative Commons/Ron Almog.

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.

Sayyad Ki-moon

PNA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad meets with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. While UN recognition would not create a Palestinian state outright, it would commit the world community to its creation in a tangible and forceful way. Credit: Creative Commons/UN Photo/Mark Garten.

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.

Separation Barrier West Bank by CC Minamie

Because continued construction serves to entrench Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, many observers believe the window for a two-state solution is narrow and temporary. The separation barrier (above) is among the most profound manifestations of Israeli control, leading some to question whether Palestinian statehood is physically possible. Credit: CC/Minamie.

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?


J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks before the Knesset in Jerusalem. Credit: Creative Commons/jstreetdotorg.

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.”


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

  1. Speaking only for myself, I see errors and defeats all around. First, it was morally correct but strategically wrong for the Obama administration to initially demand a total settlements freeze, which compelled the Palestinian negotiators to insist upon nothing less and thereby waste nearly a year after Netanyahu had reluctantly complied with a partial freeze. Then the Obama administration made itself look pathetic in attempting to bribe Netanyahu’s government into extending a partial freeze, without which Abbas refused to return to negotiations.

    So the US appears weak and in thrall to Israel, while both Israel and the Palestinian Authority look insincere and obstinate in refusing to return to talks except on their terms.

    In the meantime, J Street correctly assesses that the Palestinian appeal to the UN will setback the Palestinians rather than advance their interests. Why? Because Congress threatens to withhold US aid to the Palestinians — too high a cost for the dubious gain of winning a symbolic vote at the UN.

    But J Street, as this article illustrates, has also erred. Instead of declaring its support for a US veto, J Street should state the need for a kind of UN resolution that affirms the Palestinians’ right to statehood on a viable territory adjacent to and at peace with Israel. Moreover, as suggested now by Tikkun, such a resolution would clear the air if it also acknowledges that Israel is a “Jewish state,” the national expression of the Jewish people (which should also guarantee the rights of its non-Jewish citizens to equality under the law), and that both Israel and the Palestinian state have the right to privilege the immigration of the ethnic kin of its majority (i.e., to observe “laws of return” to both their respective sovereign territories).

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