J Street Marks a Turning Point

Peter Beinart, J Street Panel Discussion.

Peter Beinart, J Street Panel Discussion.

Under the heading “Evolving Politics of the Jewish Community,” J Street presented a panel discussion about Jewish politics and, in addition, about how the perception of J Street has changed. The panelists were David Axelrod, Peter Beinart, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D – Brooklyn) and Jim Gerstein. The speakers set out some of the important shifts in the beliefs and values of the American Jewish community. [Read more…]

The Blind Alley of J Street and Liberal American Zionism

— by Abba A. Solomon and Norman Solomon

Since its founding six years ago, J Street has emerged as a major Jewish organization under the banner “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” By now J Street is able to be a partial counterweight to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The contrast between the two U.S. groups is sometimes stark. J Street applauds diplomacy with Iran, while AIPAC works to undermine it. J Street encourages U.S. support for “the peace process” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while AIPAC opposes any meaningful Israeli concessions.

In the pressure cooker of Washington politics, J Street’s emergence has been mostly positive. But what does its motto “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” really mean?

More after the jump.
That question calls for grasping the context of Zionism among Jews in the United States; aspects of history, largely obscured and left to archives, that can shed light on J Street’s current political role. Extolling President Obama’s policies while urging him to intensify efforts to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the organization has staked out positions apt to sound humanistic and fresh. Yet J Street’s leaders are far from the first prominent American Jews who have struggled to square the circles of the moral contradictions of a “Jewish state” in Palestine.

Origins of Debate Within the American Jewish Community

Our research in the archives of the American Jewish Committee in New York City, Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere shows that J Street is adhering to, and working to reinforce, limits that major Jewish organizations adopted midway through the 20th century. Momentum for creation of the State of Israel required some hard choices for groups such as the influential AJC, which adjusted to the triumph of an ideology — militant Jewish nationalism — that it did not share. Such accommodation meant acceding to an outward consensus while suppressing debate on its implications within Jewish communities in the United States.

In 1945, AJC staff had discussed the probability of increased bloodshed in Palestine and a likelihood of “Judaism, as a whole, being held morally responsible for the fallacies of Zionism.” In exchange for AJC support in 1947 for UN partition of Palestine, the AJC extracted this promise from the Jewish Agency: “The so-called Jewish State is not to be called by that name but will bear some appropriate geographical designation. It will be Jewish only in the sense that the Jews will form a majority of the population.”

A January 1948 position paper in AJC records spoke of “extreme Zionists” then ascendant among Jews in Palestine and the United States: The paper warned that they served “no less monstrosity than the idol of the State as the complete master not only over its own immediate subjects but also over every living Jewish body and soul the world over, beyond any consideration of good or evil.

This mentality and program is the diametrical opposite to that of the American Jewish Committee.” The confidential document warned of “moral and political repercussions which may deeply affect both the Jewish position outside Palestine, and the character of the Jewish state in Palestine.” Such worries became more furtive after Israel became a nation later in 1948.

Internal Communal Debate

Privately, some leaders held out hope that constraints on public debate could coexist with continuing debate inside Jewish institutions. In 1950 the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, wrote in a letter to the head of an anti-Zionist organization, the American Council for Judaism, that the silencing of public dissent would not preclude discussion within the Yiddish-language and Jewish press.

In effect, Blaustein contended that vigorous dialogue could continue among Jews but should be inaudible to gentiles. However, the mask of American Jewry would soon become its face. Concerns about growing Jewish nationalism became marginal, then unmentionable.

The recent dispute in the Jewish student group Hillel, about whether its leadership can ban Hillel chapters on U.S. college campuses from hosting severe critics of Israeli policies, emerged from a long history of pressure on American Jews to accept Zionism and a “Jewish state” as integral to Judaism. The Jewish students now pushing to widen the bounds of acceptable discourse are challenging powerful legacies of conformity.

During the 1950s and later decades, the solution for avoiding an ugly rift was a kind of preventive surgery. Universalist, prophetic Judaism became a phantom limb of American Jewry, after an amputation in service of the ideology of an ethnic state in the Middle East. Pressures for conformity became overwhelming among American Jews, whose success had been predicated on the American ideal of equal rights regardless of ethnic group origin.

Support of Zionism

Generally flourishing in a country founded on the separation of religion and state, American Zionists dedicated themselves to an Israeli state based on the prerogatives of Jews. That Mobius strip could only be navigated by twisting logic into special endless dispensations for Jewish people. Narratives of historic Jewish vulnerability and horrific realities of the Holocaust became all-purpose justifications.

Reassessment

As decades passed after the June 1967 war, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza wore on, younger American Jews slowly became less inclined to automatically support Israeli policies. Now, 65 years after the founding of Israel, the historic realities of displacement, traumatic for Palestinians while triumphant for many Jewish Israelis, haunt the territorial present that J Street seeks to navigate.

The organization’s avowed goal is an equitable peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. But J Street’s pragmatic, organization-building strength is tied into its real-world moral liability: continuing to accept extremely skewed power relations in Palestine. The J Street leadership withholds from the range of prospective solutions the alternative of truly ending the legally and militarily enforced Jewish leverage over Palestinians, replete with the advantages of dominance (in sharp contrast to the precept of abandoning white privilege that was a requirement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa).

Every conceptual lane of J Street equates being “pro-Israel” with maintaining the doctrine of a state where Jews are more equal than others. Looking to the past, that approach requires treating the historic Zionist conquest as somewhere between necessary and immaculate. Looking at the present and the future, that approach sees forthright opposition to the preeminence of Jewish rights as extreme or otherwise beyond the pale, and not “pro-Israel.”

Influencing Congress

Like the Obama administration, J Street is steadfast in advocating a “two-state solution” while trying to thwart the right-wing forces led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A goal is to reduce his leverage by altering the political environment he encounters in the United States, where AIPAC, riding high astride much of the U.S. Congress, is aligned with the hard right of Israeli politics. In contrast, J Street is aligned with a fuzzy center that copes with cognitive dissonance by embracing humane rhetoric about Palestinians while upholding subjugation of Palestinians’ rights.

Dialogue With Divestment Proponents

At J Street’s 2011 conference, Rabbi David Saperstein congratulated the organization: “When the Jewish community needed someone to speak for them at the Presbyterian Convention against the divestment resolution, the community turned to J Street, who had the pro-peace credibility to stunt the efforts of the anti-Israeli forces, and they were compellingly effective. They did so at Berkeley on the bus ad fights, debating Jewish Voice for Peace” [no relation to the Philadelphia Jewish Voice]. Saperstein, a Reform Judaism leader described by Newsweek as the USA’s most influential rabbi, lauded J Street for its special function among “the strongly pro-Israel peace groups that have the credibility to stand before strongly dovish non-Jewish groups and guide them away from delegitimization efforts.”

Such praise for being a bulwark against “delegitimization” is a high compliment for J Street. It is surely gratifying for its founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. When he reaffirms “our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel,” he frames it in these terms: “We believe that the Jewish people, like all other people in the world, have the right to a national home of their own, and we celebrate its rebirth after thousands of years.”

Support For A Two State Solution

His official J Street bio says that “Ben-Ami’s family connection to Israel goes back 130 years to the first aliyah when his great-grandparents were among the first settlers in Petah Tikva [near present-day Tel Aviv]. His grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel’s independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II.” Readers are left to ponder the reference to leadership of the ultranationalist Irgun, given its undisputed terrorist violence.

Whatever its differences with the Likudnik stances of AIPAC and Netanyahu, J Street joins in decrying the danger of the “delegitimization” of Israel, a word often deployed against the questioning of Jewish privileges in a Palestine maintained by armed force. In sync with U.S. foreign policy, J Street is enmeshed in assuming the validity of prerogatives that are embedded in Netanyahu’s demand for unequivocal support of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

In the process, the secular USA massively supports a government that is using weapons of war emblazoned with symbols of the Jewish religion, while the U.S. Congress continues to designate Israel as a “strategic ally.” An AIPAC official was famously quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg as boasting, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”

J Street is aligned with more “moderate” personalities in Israeli politics, but what is considered moderate Zionism in Israel may not match sensibilities outside Israel. On a J Street-sponsored U.S. speaking tour, Knesset member Adi Koll said she is pleased that Palestinian refugees from 1948 are dying off, which she portrayed as good for peace: “This is what we have been waiting for, for more and more of them to die,” to finalize the War of Independence expulsion of Palestinians.

J Street’s Ben-Ami has warned of “the ‘one state nightmare,’ a minority of Jewish Israelis in a state with a majority of non-Jewish residents.” For J Street, an embrace of perpetual Jewish dominance as imperative seems to be a litmus test before any criticism of the occupation is to be deemed legitimate.

Progressive Double Standard

A human rights lawyer active with Jewish Voice for Peace, David L. Mandel, sees a double standard at work. “Too many progressives on everything else still are not progressive about Israel and Palestine,” he told us. “And J Street, by making it easier for them to appear to be critical, in fact serves as a roadblock on the path to a consistent, human rights and international law-based position.”

Covering J Street’s annual conference in September 2013, Mondoweiss.net editor Philip Weiss pointed out: “J Street still can claim to be a liberal Zionist organization that wants to pressure Israel to leave the settlements. But more than that it wants access to the Israeli establishment, and it is not going to alienate that establishment by advocating any measure that will isolate Israel or put real pressure on it.”

While evocations of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel may sound uplifting, J Street ultimately lets the Israeli government off the hook by declaring that relationship sacrosanct, no matter what. The organization insists that political candidates funded by J StreetPAC “must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active U.S. leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.”

The sanctity of the proviso about “the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel” became evident to one of us (Norman Solomon) while running for Congress in 2012 in California. After notification that J Street had decided to confer “On the Street” status on Solomon and another Democratic candidate in the primary race, the group’s leadership suddenly withdrew the stamp of approval, after discovering a Solomon op-ed piece written in July 2006 that criticized Washington’s support for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon then underway. In a specially convened conference call, J Street’s top leaders told the candidate that one statement in the op-ed was especially egregious: “The United States and Israel. Right now, it’s the most dangerous alliance in the world.”

In December 2013, while visiting Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.” He added that despite occasional “tactical” differences “we do not have a difference about the fundamental strategy that we both seek with respect to the security of Israel and the long-term peace of this region.”  

Two days later, on December 7, at a Saban Center gathering in Washington, Kerry joined with President Obama in paying tribute to the idea of a nation for Jews. Obama endorsed the goal of protecting “Israel as a Jewish state.” He sat for an interview with billionaire Zionist Haim Saban, who joked: “Very obedient president I have here today!” For his part, Kerry addressed Israeli ethnic anxiety by urging that Israel heed U.S. advice for withdrawal from some territory, to defuse what he called the “demographic time bomb,” non-Jewish births, threatening the existence of a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Militant Jewish Nationalism

Although “militant Islam” is common coin in U.S. discourse about the Middle East, militant Jewish nationalism lacks a place in the conversation. This absence occurs despite, and perhaps because of, the fact that militant Jewish nationalism is such a powerful ideology in the United States, especially in Congress. Yet recent erosion of the taboo has caused some alarm. In May 2011 the Reut Institute, well-connected to the Israeli establishment, held a joint conference with the American Jewish Committee and met with smaller organizations to formalize a policy of  “establishing red-lines with regards to the discourse about Israel between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization.”

In its own way, J Street has laid down red-line markers along the left perimeter of American Zionism. For instance, some of the most telling moments of J Street’s existence came during the November 2012 Gaza crisis. As the conflict escalated, Israel threatened a ground invasion. J Street urged Israeli restraint but did not oppose the ongoing intense bombardment of Gaza. Instead, echoing President Obama, the organization endorsed Israel’s “right and obligation to defend itself against rocket fire and against those who refuse to recognize its right to exist and inexcusably use terror and violence to achieve their ends.”

J Street’s statement, titled “Enough of Silence,” eerily mirrored the brutal asymmetry of the warfare then raging and, for that matter, the asymmetry of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While far more Palestinians than Israelis were dying (87 Palestinian and four Israeli noncombatants lost their lives, according to a report from the human-rights group B’Tselem), J Street condemned the killing by Palestinians but merely questioned the ultimate efficacy of the killing by Israelis. While J Street was appropriately repulsed by the bloodshed, it could not plead for reversal of the underlying, continuing injustice beyond its advocacy of a two-state solution. During the years ahead, J Street is likely to be instrumental in establishing and reinforcing such red lines.

A rare instance when J Street has not endorsed President Obama’s approach in the Middle East came in September 2013, when the administration pressed for U.S. missile strikes on Syria following claims that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. J Street remained officially silent on the issue; Jeremy Ben-Ami reportedly pushed for endorsement of an attack, but many others in the organization were opposed. The Forward newspaper quoted a J Street activist: “Jeremy is a pragmatist. He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream.”

A New Way of Supporting Israel

J Street is striving to support Israel differently than AIPAC by fostering the more peaceful, humane streams of Zionism. Among new generations of U.S. Jews, the Zionist rationales for Israel as a whole are losing ground. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 93 percent of American Jews state they are proud of being part of the Jewish people, but only 43 percent say that “caring about” the State of Israel is essential to being a Jew, and the figure drops to 32 percent of respondents under 30 years old.  

The Jewish establishment has always represented those Jews choosing to affiliate with institutionalized Judaism. More and more, this leaves out large numbers who don’t believe that blood-and-soil Jewish nationalism should crowd out their Jewish and universalist values. As the Pew survey shows, American Jews are less sympathetic than American Jewish organizations to enforcing Jewish political nationalism with armed force.

Last summer, Ben-Ami told the New Republic, “We are advocating for a balance between the security needs of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians. It is by definition a moderate, centrist place.” Ben-Ami highlighted his strategy for practicality, “We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community. If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street.”

We recently submitted three questions to Ben-Ami. Asked about the historic concerns that a “democratic Jewish state” would be self-contradictory, he replied, “J Street believes it is possible to reconcile the essence of Zionism, that Israel must be the national homeland of the Jewish people, and the key principles of its democracy, namely, that the state must provide justice and equal rights for all its citizens. In the long run, Israel can only manage the tension between these two principles if there is a homeland for the Palestinian people alongside Israel.”

Asked whether relations with non-Jewish Palestinians would be better now if Jewish leaders who favored creation of a non-ethnically-based state had prevailed, Ben-Ami did not respond directly. Instead, he affirmed support for a two-state solution and commented, “History has sadly and repeatedly proven the necessity of a nation-state for the Jewish people. J Street today is focused on building support in the American Jewish community for the creation of a nation-state for the Palestinian people alongside Israel, precisely because it is so necessary if Israel is to continue to be the national home of the Jewish people.”

The shortest, and perhaps the most significant, reply came when we asked: “Do you believe it is fair to say that the Israeli government has engaged in ethnic cleansing?”  Ben-Ami responded with one word, “No.”

“They have destroyed and are destroying … and do not know it and do not want to know it,” James Baldwin wrote several decades ago. “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Those who have seen to the devastation of “others,” and have even celebrated overall results of the process, cannot begin to atone or make amends without some genuine remorse. With a pose of innocence, in the absence of remorse, the foundation of J Street’s position is denial of the ethnic cleansing that necessarily enabled Israel to become what it is now, officially calling itself a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Population transfer of Arabs was part of the planning of Zionist leadership, and it was implemented. Benny Morris, the pioneering Israeli historian of the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel, said, “Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”  

In a talk five decades ago at Hillel House at the University of Chicago, philosopher Leo Strauss mentioned that Leon Pinsker’s Zionist manifesto “Autoemancipation,” published in 1882, quotes the classic Hillel statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” but leaves out the middle of the sequence, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”  “The omission of these words,” Strauss said, “is the definition of pureblooded political Zionism.”  The full integrity of Rabbi Hillel’s complete statement, urging Jews not to be “only for myself,” is explicit in the avowed mission of J Street.

There is unintended symbolism in the organization’s name, which partly serves as an inside Washington joke. The absence of an actual J Street between I and K Streets is, so to speak, a fact on the ground. And sadly, the group’s political vision of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” is as much a phantom as the nonexistent lettered street between I and K in the Nation’s Capital; unless “peace” is to be understood along the lines of the observation by Carl von Clausewitz that “a conqueror is always a lover of peace.”

Abba A. Solomon is the author of “The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein’s Speech ‘The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews.'” Norman Solomon is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, cofounder of RootsAction.org and the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”
 

Alicia Keys to Perform in Israel Despite BDS Pressure

— by Steve Sheffey

Alicia Keys confirmed that she will perform in Tel Aviv on July 4 as scheduled, despite public pressure to boycott Israel from Alice Walker (who refused to authorize a translation of “The Color Purple” into Hebrew) and Roger Waters. “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show,” she said.

Walker called Israel an “apartheid country,” said that the Israeli system is “cruel, unjust, and unbelievably evil,” and called Israel the cause of “much of the affliction in our suffering world.” Walker refused to authorize a new Hebrew translation of “The Color Purple.” Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, also urged Keys to cancel. Waters previously convinced Stevie Wonder to cancel an appearance at a Friends of the IDF event in Los Angeles.

More on the anti-Israel BDS movement after the jump.
For an excellent refutation of the canard that Israel practices apartheid, read this op-ed from Richard Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is condemned across the pro-Israel political spectrum, even by those who strongly believe that Israel should find a way to extricate itself from the West Bank.

According to J Street:

For some, the BDS movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism” and “the BDS movement fails to explicitly to recognize Israel’s right to exist and it ignores or rejects Israel’s role as a national home for the Jewish people. In addition, the promotion by some in the BDS movement of the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their families indicates support for an outcome incompatible with our vision of Israel and incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict.

A statement signed by the National Jewish Democratic Council and 60 other Jewish organizations opposing the BDS movement explained that “Criticism [of Israel] becomes anti-Semitism, however, when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.”

So what do we do about it?

My view is that if an artist or scientist attempts to economically harm or delegitimize Israel, we should not economically support that person.

As much as I used to enjoy Elvis Costello’s music, I can’t listen to him anymore. I have a long list of books to read. Why read Alice Walker when there is so much other good literature? We certainly should not reject the scientific ideas of Stephen Hawking, but why buy his books? (If you must read him or Walker, use the library).

I’m not suggesting that we deny ourselves art based on the anti-Semitism of its creators. If we did, we would deprive ourselves of a large portion of Western culture. I also suspect that if we knew what was in the minds of some of our favorite artists, we might not be too happy. Rather, I am suggesting that we single out the subset of artists who have chosen to single out Israel for boycott. If they won’t play for Israelis, we shouldn’t pay money for them to play to us. So you won’t find Elvis Costello, Santana, or Stevie Wonder on my playlist, and you certainly won’t see me at their concerts.

Perhaps most important, we should visit Israel or buy Israeli goods — no matter where we are on the political spectrum.

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Where You Stand and What You Hear

Thoughts Regarding Israel AdvocacyI have just returned from the Policy Conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). This year’s convention was particularly exciting and provocative. Beyond the speakers of notoriety and prominence, however, I left the conference with a clearer and deeper sense of what it means to support and advocate for Israel. Indeed, that is the explicit mission of AIPAC.  Simply put, AIPAC is about knowing where you stand.

[Read more…]

Dennis Ross at J Street Conference 2011

Ambassador Dennis Ross is Special Assistant to the President and the Department of State’s Senior Director for the Central Region. He spoke today at  J Street’s Annual Conference in Washington, DC

When J Street began planning this conference, I’m sure you had in mind discussing a very different reality in the Middle East than exists today.  But a few months can feel like an eternity in the Middle East, and we have seen a remarkable transformation in the region over the last several weeks.  For the first time in generations, people in Tunisia and then Egypt took to the streets and unseated their leaders through popular, peaceful protests.  Thousands of people have followed them from Algeria to Bahrain to Yemen where we have seen governments begin to respond with different degrees of effectiveness.  And we have also seen utterly appalling violence in Libya where a detached and brutal leadership has chosen a desperate and irresponsible response to its people’s legitimate demands.

A few months ago, it was difficult to envision a Middle East without Ben Ali and Mubarak, stalwart representatives of an old order who governed with the belief that intimidation could preserve their rule.  Now, as we enter a period of uncertainty, and seek to ensure that the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are peaceful, orderly and credible, we need to begin thinking about the Middle East in new ways.  As President Obama said a couple of weeks ago,

“The world is changing; you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change.  You can’t be behind the curve.”

This morning I would like to talk to you about what has happened in Egypt, its impact on the region, and the actions taken by the Obama Administration in the region and beyond.  

More after the jump.
One thing became very clear on January 25th when the first group of brave young Egyptian men and women descended on Tahrir Square: the status quo in Egypt was neither stable nor sustainable.  For years, the Mubarak regime imposed its rule through a sprawling security apparatus operating under a three-decades-old Emergency Law.
But Egypt’s revolution showed that repression alone cannot stifle dissent.  That was the age-old tactic of the Mubarak regime: to arrest dissidents and activists; restrict the formation of political parties; and limit exposure to independent voices in the media.  The parliamentary elections in November where the ruling National Democratic Party and associated independents won 95 percent of 500 seats was a clear indication of the regime’s intention to disregard all suggestions to open political space.   The problem, however, was that the frustrations of the Egyptian people were growing and were being infused with a new dynamism from Egypt’s youth who have a profound yearning to join the 21st century.  They want jobs, housing, and a future that offers opportunity.  Unable to meet those needs and unwilling to satisfy the desire for openness, the Egyptian government fell back to what it knew best: coercion.

One case in particular exemplifies the fallacy of the old-fashioned thinking that dissident voices could simply be intimidated through force.  Last June, a 28-year-old businessman was pulled out of an internet café and beaten to death on the street by thugs from the security forces.  His crime: posting examples of police corruption on a blog.
His name was Khalid Said, and within five days of his death, a Facebook page was created called, “We are All Khalid Said.”  Within weeks, 130,000 people joined the page, which now has almost half a million followers.  And we now know that the page’s founder was a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim, who himself became a powerful symbol of the opposition following his disappearance and detention for 12 days during the protests.

Many of us who have followed Egypt’s problems for years, assumed the regime was simply too strong and repression was too pervasive for significant change to take place overnight.  As my friend Hala Mustafa, the editor of the Egyptian journal, Democracy¸ warned in the Washington Post in 2005,

“Unless the security services are reined in, real political change and efforts to implement ‘reform from within’ will continue to be blocked in Egypt and across the Middle East.  The enlightened political elite will remain powerless, individuals who can make genuine contributions will be systematically targeted, moderate groups and trends will continue to be excluded, and most citizens will remain absent from political life. In a word, the political arena will still echo only one voice.”

 The irony, of course, is that when the political space is restricted to one voice, frustration is bound to deepen, and when it comes to the surface, it is more likely to boil over quickly.  

The youth of the January 25th movement showed their countrymen how to overcome their fear and were soon joined by Egyptians of all walks of life who maintained a peaceful but persistent call for change.  Not that long ago, as many of you may rememeber, Egyptians were seized by heightened sectarian tensions and attacks against the Christian minority.  But the truly national movement that emerged in Tahrir Square witnessed both faiths, Muslim and Christian, praying together in an ultimate symbol of unity of purpose.

President Obama recognized the magnitude of change in Egypt very quickly.  He stated early on that Egypt could not go back to the way it was and the government had to take meaningful and tangible steps immediately to respond to the legitimate demands of the protesters.  That is what we communicated to our range of contacts within the Egyptian government including to President Mubarak directly.  It is important to note that conversation did not begin on January 25th.  Throughout our administration, we have stressed to the Egyptians the importance of opening the political system by taking tangible steps, such as lifting the Emergency Law and allowing international monitors to supervise last year’s parliamentary elections.   The Mubarak government chose not to heed these warnings, just as they did not realize the magnitude of the problem they faced on January 25th.

From the outset of Egypt’s upheaval, we made clear that the United States cannot dictate how others run their societies, but we also emphasized our support for universal principles, including freedom of assembly, association, speech, and access to information.

We stressed all along that the demonstrations should be peaceful-and so should the government’s response.  As the President stressed repeatedly, “We don’t believe in violence and coercion as a way of maintaining control.”

We encouraged inclusive negotiations between the government and a broad range of opposition and civil society figures, with the aim of supporting concrete reform and irreversible political change.  We expressed the belief that the best way for the government to demonstrate its commitment to reform was for it to articulate a timetable and roadmap to the constitutional and political changes needed, and to lift the Emergency Law.   We have sustained a broad outreach to a diverse range of nongovernmental and governmental actors in Egypt to encourage a negotiated transition and made it clear we support principles, processes, and institution-building – not personalities.

Now that Egypt enters a particularly delicate phase, we have committed to helping in any way we can.  Specifically, we reassigned $150 million in assistance to support Egypt’s democratic transition and aid in its economic recovery.  Despite the extraordinary budget difficulties facing our country, now is not the time to cut aid to Egypt.  The stakes are simply too high.  Egypt has long been a symbolic and practical leader of the Middle East.  The region looks to Egypt and will continue to do so now more than ever as other people from Algeria to Yemen seek to assert their own rights, and other governments determine how to respond to growing citizen demands.  If Egypt’s transition succeeds in establishing a truly representative and responsible government, it will establish a positive model for others and it will affect the whole Middle East.

While we have been encouraged by its initial steps, Egypt, as the President has said, is just at the beginning of its transition.  We have applauded the military’s professionalism and performance during the protests, choosing to safeguard the population at a time of great uncertainty.   The Egyptian military has been a source of stability throughout this period, but it now has an enormous responsibility for which there are no courses in military academies: to supervise an orderly, safe, and credible transition back to civilian rule.  The military has committed itself to undertaking such a transition, and we maintain excellent contacts with the military with whom our own armed forces have worked so closely for several decades.  We are also encouraged that in two of their early communiqués, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reaffirmed its commitment to abide by all regional and international treaties, including its peace with Israel.  Maintaining that position will be critical for Egypt’s continued responsible leadership in the region and beyond-and that responsible, leading role is something we all clearly want to see.

As I said earlier, the challenges facing Egypt are not unique.  Over the last few weeks, demonstrations have occurred in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, and, also Iran.  Each of these countries has particular circumstances, but if there is one lesson these governments should take away from Hosni Mubarak’s final days in office, it ought to be that repression does not pay.   That is why a smarter path for each and every government in the region to pursue is one of open, transparent, and credible reform to establish new, more legitimate contracts between governments and populations.  So far, we have seen initial positive steps in some places.  The King and Crown Prince of Bahrain have pursued a national dialogue initiative with the full spectrum of Bahraini society – an effort we strongly support.  This week, Algeria lifted its Emergency Law that had been in place for 19 years, a step President Obama commended.  These are important moves, but they are only just the beginning.  Each and every government across the Middle East has a responsibility to its citizens to take serious and credible steps toward reform, and to uphold the universal rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.  Those who have directed or encouraged violence must stop immediately.  As the President told Chanceller Merkel of Germany over the weekend, “When a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now.

We have been looking closely at these challenges across the region for some time.  In fact, last August, the President signed a directive seeking a government-wide study on political reform in the Middle East and North Africa.  For several months, we held weekly interagency meetings examining questions of political reform across the region, looking at past efforts at reform in the region, assessing the lessons from other areas, and considering different kinds of options and approaches.  That preparation and process has helped us respond quickly and effectively to the events of the past month, and will help guide our regional focus on encouraging governments in the region to take on meaningful political reforms going forward.

While the challenges of governance and reform are certainly foremost on our minds given the dramatic events of the past few weeks, I want to emphasize that we have not lost track of our core priorities across the region: maintaining our strong security partnerships, actively pursuing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and keeping the pressure on Iran.  Throughout the crisis in Egypt, we had close and ongoing consultations with our regional partners to share our assessments of the situation, explain our policies, and assure them of our continued commitments to their security.  In the past weeks, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and many others on the national security team have spoken multiple times to key leaders throughout the region.  This week, Admiral Mullen, General Mattis, and senior state department officials have been in the Middle East.  And we are working as intensively with our partners in Europe to develop an effective assistance plan to help Egypt and Tunisia.  We have also been working closely with the Europeans and others on the steps that we unilaterally and collectively can take to respond to the crisis in Libya by conveying a unified international voice about the atrocities there and providing necessary humanitarian assistance.   That unity of purpose was reflected in the unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1970 on Saturday night  –  a Chapter VII resolution that strongly condemns the crimes of the Libyan regime, and imposes an arms embargo and economic sanctions.  It was also the first time in history where there was unanimous support for referring the investigation of such crimes to the International Criminal Court.  

During this period we have also stayed in close touch with the Israelis.   We understand well that while change in Egypt is a source of concern for many in the region, for Israel, it has profound meaning.  Historically, Egypt broke the circle of isolation and denial of Israel.  Peace – even cold peace – with Egypt has fundamentally altered the prospect for wider wars in the Middle East.  Understandably, many Israelis worried about the meaning of change and wondered whether it might not be better to hold onto the old order.  But as events unfolded, and the problems that Mubarak’s regime had created became more apparent, many Israelis also came to see that the longer those problems festered, the more the extremists would benefit.  That is the last thing that we want to see.  

In this context and in this environment, it is also important to reaffirm a fundamental principle of the Obama administration’s policy toward the region: our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.  Despite all the budgetary challenges, we have protected support for Israel and maintained full funding of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system that will significantly enhance Israel’s defenses against short-range rockets and mortars.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen recently traveled to Israel to attend the farewell ceremony for outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, symbolizing the close relations of the very top echelons of our militaries.  Our ongoing strategic discussions with the Israelis have taken on a character, a range of issues, intensity, and a frequency that is simply unprecedented.  This is important not just because these steps demonstrate our commitment to our long-standing ally, but because a strong and confident Israel is one that can take the risks necessary for peace-particularly during a time of great transition in the region.

If Israel can view one lesson from the events in Egypt, it is the danger of getting stuck with an unsustainable status quo.  Just as the frustrations in Egypt grew over time, we should all recognize that the conflict with the Palestinians will only become more intractable over time.  Our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are ongoing, even when they are less visible.  Next week, they will continue with meetings between representatives of the Quartet and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.  I am not going to talk at length about these efforts, but I would like to make two broad points.

First, because there are a number clocks that are ticking, the longer it takes to forge an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the harder it will be to forge a two-state solution that meets the needs of both sides.  For example, the demographic clock is ticking and it is only a matter of time before it challenges the very foundations of the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state. The biological clock is ticking, and as a younger generation grows up with conflict and occupation and fading prospects for peace, the less likely we will be to see new leaders emerge who believe in coexistence.  And as the struggle between rejectionists and pragmatists continues across the region, there is a technological clock that will empower those committed to violence with increasingly deadly and indiscriminate weapons of terror that can spoil peace at any moment.  Hamas and Hezbollah had fewer rockets with shorter ranges just a few years ago; no doubt a few years from now, their arsenals will be even more dangerous and deadly if left unchecked.  Peace is therefore essential to fulfilling the national aspirations of both peoples; the longer it is deferred, the more elusive it will become.   We will continue to press both sides to engage seriously in negotiations – the only forum and the only mechanism that can resolve this historic conflict.  We will also continue our assistance to the Palestinians institutional development program under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, which is essential to realizing a two-state solution with a viable state of Palestine.  Indeed, Fayyad’s reform and development plan anticipated how Arab governments can be more responsive to the needs of their citizens by providing better governance and personal security.

This brings me to my second point.  The ongoing wave of political change will finally enable the region to address the long-standing problem that political stagnation actually limited the prospects for comprehensive peace and regional reconciliation.  The landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report recognized that the lack of Arab-Israeli peace was “both a cause and an excuse for distorting the development agenda, disrupting national priorities and retarding political development.”  For these Arab scholars, Israel’s occupation was used to “justify curbing dissent at a time when democratic transition requires greater pluralism in society and more public debate on national development policies. ”  As a peace negotiator, I heard countless times from leaders in the region that reform could not take place without peace.  That was an excuse then; today, it is simply denial.  As governments begin to initiate reforms in response to the demands of their own citizens, they will soon realize that continued conflict will impede their efforts and national resources can be better applied to local concerns.  In the early 1990s, Shimon Peres described a “New Middle East” where economic opportunities and interdependence would propel the region to a new era of cooperation and coexistence.

Two decades later, let us hope that the people of the Middle East will begin recognizing these opportunities, and that leaders will seize the moment to take necessary reforms not just to advance the cause of local reform, but also to advance the prospects for a comprehensive peace in the region.  Reform and peace go hand in hand and offer the peoples of the region a future of hope and possibility.

Let me close with a few words about Iran.  Many of you probably noticed that the Iranian regime has tried to claim credit for the events in Egypt, but we know two things:  first, that their claims fell on deaf ears in Egypt where a nation rose up seeking only to improve their own lives under national – not sectarian – ideals; and second, Iran’s claims fell on deaf ears to many Iranians who once again took to the streets this week in an open act of defiance against their government.  Indeed, Iran has only exposed its own hypocrisy.  As the President Obama said,

“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people were who trying to express themselves peacefully.”

 And following Iran’s continued suppression of peaceful dissent,  Secretary Clinton said that

“It has been made clear to the world that Iran denies its citizens the same fundamental rights it continues to applaud elsewhere in the Middle East.”

 We support the universal rights of people to express themselves freely and peacefully – the very rights Iran denied in June 2009 and again these past weeks. We will continue to speak up on behalf of those rights when they are so brazenly denied.

In the meantime, we are keeping our eye on the ball with Iran.  We will keep the pressure on and we will increase it with our partners as Iran continues to face serious hardships as a result of international sanctions.  Over the past two weeks, the United States has designated an additional Iranian bank for supporting prohibited proliferation activities and imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials for human rights abuses.  While the door will always remain open for diplomacy, Iran must know that delay tactics and obfuscations will only lead to more pressure.  Iran’s continued unwillingness to engage seriously with the P5+1 and its continued failure to respond fully to inquiries by the IAEA will only add to that pressure.  Let me be very clear about one thing:  we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we will not be deflected from that goal.

We clearly have a full plate of challenges in the Middle East today.  But our agenda is clear: help Egypt to conduct a successful, orderly, and credible transition; encourage others in the region to undertake meaningful reform now before they too face destabilizing unrest; continue the push for peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; and build the pressure on Iran.  This is a complex and demanding agenda, but it has the complete attention of the President and his full national security team.

Thank you very much.

Basics for Defining a “Pro-Israel” Organization

— Lee Bender

To be considered a true “pro-Israel organization” there are indeed simple, basic, clear-cut, line-in-the sand guidelines that must be adhered to:

  1. Believing that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people who are entitled to self-determination in their homeland;  
  2. respecting the vibrant Israeli democracy and its courts and not elevating one’s judgment for those of Israel’s citizens;
  3. respecting Israeli military judgments and those who are responsible for protecting its citizens, and not being an armchair general;
  4. not joining forces with Israel’s enemies;  
  5. emphasizing the good in Israel while acknowledging the faults;
  6. supporting Israeli government efforts to make peace;
  7. understanding what Israel’s enemies say, advocate and do (i.e. Fatah and Hamas charter to destroy Israel);
  8. being pro-peace, but not to the point that advocating for Israeli concessions damages Israel’s existence.

More after the jump.
Unfortunately, it is clear that too many of our young people on campus are ill-equipped to even enter into an intelligent discussion on the Middle East conflicts to form an opinion, let alone defend Israel from its vast and vociferous critics. And the same goes for too many in our own community who are blinded by doing tikkun olam at all costs, political correctness, self-hating/loathing of their Jewishness, or apathy. Be proud, firm but fair- but be not afraid to defend our people who have survived the most incredible odds in human history, now thrive, and are indeed “a light onto the nations.”

Ackerman Turns On J Street

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY 5)

After learning of J-Street‘s current public call for the Obama Administration to not veto a prospective UN Security Council resolution that, under the rubric of concern about settlement activity, would effectively and unjustly place the whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process on Israel, and — critically — would give fresh and powerful impetus to the effort to internationally isolate and delegitimize Israel, I’ve come to the conclusion that J-Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated.

It is not Israel that is refusing to enter final status negotiations. It is not Israel that has refused again and again to make unilateral gestures of good faith (recall the hundreds of West Bank security checkpoints and roadblocks removed, and the 10 month settlement freeze). It is not Israel that is now trying to force the peace process back in to the same dead-end from which the Obama Administration has spent the past month trying to extract itself. But astonishingly, it is Israel that J-Street would put in the stocks in the public square.

The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council, is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.

America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.

Congressman Gary Ackerman is the Ranking Democratic member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

See J-Street’s response after the jump.
— J-Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami

J Street deeply regrets and objects to Rep. Gary Ackerman’s statement today. It reflects a misunderstanding of J Street’s position and of the UN Resolution in question.

J Street hopes “never to see the state of Israel publicly taken to task by the United Nations,” as we said in our statement last week. In fact, our statement outlined how both Israel and the United States can help to avoid this issue coming to a vote at the United Nations – first, by Israel acting in its own self-interest to freeze settlement activity over the Green Line and, second, by the Obama Administration asserting “clear leadership in a serious effort to reach a two-state resolution of the conflict.”

In the absence of either of these, it should not surprise Representative Ackerman or other friends of Israel that the issue is brought to the United Nations and the broader court of world opinion. Without a two-state solution to the conflict in the near term, pressure on Israel in international fora will increasingly be the norm and not the exception.

As supporters of Israel, the fact that we have reached this point pains us deeply, and so does the Congressman’s misrepresentation of our position and of this resolution.

First, we do not “support” UN condemnation of Israel or endorse this resolution. We have urged the United States to consider withholding its veto from a resolution criticizing Israeli settlement activity – a resolution that closely tracks the policy of the United States under the last eight administrations.

Second, the resolution expresses support for a two-state solution and stresses the urgency of achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace. It calls on both parties to improve the situation on the ground, build confidence, and create conditions necessary for promoting the peace process. The resolution does not, as the Congressman implies, place the ‘whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process’ on Israel – and neither does J Street.

Third, the resolution calls on both parties to continue negotiations on final status issues.

The status quo in the Middle East is untenable. The future of Israel, as both a democracy and the homeland of the Jewish people, hangs in the balance without progress toward a two-state solution.

At a moment crying out for leadership, what’s needed now is not the politics of yesterday that the Congressman offers with this attack, but the courage to put on the table the tough steps that are needed to end this conflict. We do Israel no favors by offering a pass from facing the consequences of counter-productive actions and policies.

J Street has never excused Palestinian intransigence or signaled that the Palestinian leadership need not meet its obligations as well. We have called on the leaders of all parties to help bring about a reasonable, negotiated two-state resolution to the conflict.

We urge Congressman Ackerman to take a closer look at J Street’s statement, the UN Resolution and the situation on the ground. Saving the two-state solution will require leaders with courage and vision, both of which are sadly lacking in the Congressman’s statement today.