Conference of Presidents Mission Report: Jenin, Ayalon/J Street and more


Due to other Ameinu policy statements being sent to you in recent weeks and not wanting to overload your inbox, I am a little tardy reporting on the Israeli portion of the Conference of Presidents Mission in mid-February, covering only the South African portion thus far. In addition, the events of last week and the current crisis between the U.S. and Israel are significant and I will touch upon that subject as well.  With that in mind, I want to highlight three noteworthy elements from among the intensive five days spent by American Jewish organizational leaders listening to an impressive collection of speakers, panelists and politicians.

Into the West Bank

Venturing out of our Jerusalem hotel, we traveled to the north of Israel to the Gilboa region and then to Jenin on the West Bank. As I wrote last year, there is important cross-border cooperation taking place between the Gilboa Regional Council and the city of Jenin. Escorted by a convoy of Palestinian security forces, we travelled to meet with the Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salem Fayyad.

Mr. Fayyad spoke at length about his “bottom up state building” effort and the accomplishments in lowering crime and violence on the West Bank while building the economy. He described his routine of traveling every day from village to village, engaging his citizens and listening to their issues. He spoke eloquently about his commitment to progressive values of democracy and co-existence, and says that he will not tolerate discrimination of any type.   His approach has caught the attention of both local and international players. The next morning, President Shimon Peres remarked that Mr. Fayyad is “following in the footsteps of Ben-Gurion..…building a state, not negotiating a state.”  Fayyad himself spoke about the need for his “bottom up” efforts to be coupled with a “top down” political process.

Conference Chair Alan Solow shared our hopes that his efforts will indeed lead to the peace and coexistence that both sides desire, but added that ongoing “Palestinian incitement” like honoring terrorists as martyrs is not constructive. Mr. Fayyad suggested that such incidents should be viewed in the context of a “long time of occupation and violence” but said that there is improvement on this front and commented that the people of Jenin are “speaking a different language” from their recent, violent past.

Reflecting back on that day, The significance of the meeting with Mr. Fayyad and Jenin Governor Qaduora Mussa was primarily in the fact that American Jewish organizational leaders from across the religious and political spectrum were driven to Jenin, sat in a hotel ball room surrounded by armed Palestinian policemen and had an exchange of ideas over fruit juice and cookies. One could not have imagined this event two years ago and from conversations with delegation members and based upon private conversations, it was an eye opening experience for many.

So What is the Alternative?

It has become passé to say that the “two state for two peoples” view the Zionist left has been promoting for decades is now the consensus position in Israel. Dan Meridor is a case in point. He is currently a Deputy Prime Minister and his family is well known for their involvement in the pre-state  right-wing underground and as leaders in the Greater Israel Movement. He told the gathering that the “dream has ended” and last three prime ministers of “Likud origin” have arrived at the two state solution as a way to preserve a Jewish democratic state, referring to Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu).

Unfortunately, there is still a strong element in both Israel and the American Jewish community that rejects this notion and I decided to use the mission to understand their thinking and what they propose. During a conversation with a national leader of a well-known right wing American Jewish organization, I asked him for his alternative plan. His first response was that this was the “typical rhetorical trick” used by the left. I assured them it was no “trick” and that I sincerely wanted to hear his plan. He suggested that the status quo was the only way to preserve Israel’s security, even if it meant ongoing military confrontations on all fronts. When I suggested that this could ultimately result in complete international isolation of Israel he surprisingly agreed and said Israel might cease to exist in the future. When I expressed shock at his ability to contemplate that possibility with such equanimity, he told me that our enemies will never let us live in peace.

Likud MK Danny Danon, a hard liner who opposes Netanyahu’s apparent change of heart on two states, spoke on a panel about the settlement enterprise. During the question and answer period, I told him that we were nearing the end of our mission and we had yet to hear a coherent alternative to a two state solution. He responded that the “National Camp” is developing a plan but it will not be implemented in the short term.  He cryptically explained that “it will take 10-15 years” and will include Jordan and Egypt realizing that there is no place for a Palestinian state.  He allowed that they need to work on the details. Indeed.

From Diplomat to Loose Canon – the J Street Saga

Shortly before we arrived in Israel, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that “The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” praising J Street for their views on sanctions against Iran, the Goldstone Report, and any attempts by British courts to try Tzippi Livni as a war criminal. When Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon addressed our gathering, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask him if Oren’s comments signaled a warming of the Israeli government towards J Street.  Ayalon reacted quickly, stating “They can’t say that they are a pro-Israel organization,” adding that they still haven’t said anything on the Goldstone Report. When I pointed out that he was not current on this issue, he asked me to send him the J Street statement, which I did that evening, along with the J Street’s criticism of the demonstrators who interrupted Ayalon and Oren’s speeches at UC Irvine. Remarkably, minutes after he left our meeting, the Foreign Ministry distributed an official communiqué with the highlights of his comments, including his response to my question.

The next day, Ayalon proceeded to put his words into action, and refused to meet with a delegation of Congressmen brought to Israel by J Street, apparently because J Street staffers would be present at the meeting. This insult to member of the U.S. Congress upset a number of their legislative colleagues and resulted in a Knesset debate in which Labor, Kadima and Meretz MKs all lambasted him for his behavior. Ayalon’s final words on the matter were “Since you asked what is the policy of the Foreign Ministry towards J Street, I want to be clear about it.  We will treat it exactly as we will treat any other Jewish organization in the US. There are organizations from the right, organizations from the left, organizations from the center, period.” I have emailed his chief of staff three times, but have not received any response regarding the J Street materials that I sent to the Deputy Foreign Minister.

Since the Mission

The diplomatic fiasco that was Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week has now escalated into a full blown crisis. Instead of the trip advancing George Mitchell’s efforts, the Israeli government’s missteps have set them back. In this context, I think back to both American and Israeli voices we heard on the mission regarding the urgency of reaching a peace agreement. James Cunningham, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, told the participants that “time is not on our side.” Michael Herzog, currently a peace negotiator for the Israeli government, concurred, telling us that “time is of the essence.” We are now losing more valuable time and a formula must be found to get the proximity talks going, including Bibi  “paying” with more gestures due to his dysfunctional government.


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