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A report on the JSTREET conference (Wash, 21-23 March, 2015) by Giorgio Gomel of Jcall Europe

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1. Jstreet’s show of strength (3000 participants, of whom 1100 University students, and overall 180.000 supporters)) and determination in opposing the new Israeli government and advocating the two-state solution. In the opening night after two moving dialogues between Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramim ( Israeli and Palestinian spokepersons of the Parents’ Circle) and Roni Keidar and Maha Mehanna (Roni an activist from Other voice, an NGO that promotes dialogue between Israeli residents of the South and Gazans, and Maha, herself a resident of Gaza), Jeremy BenAmi, President of Jstreet made a very impassioned speeech. He stressed that despite the bad outcome of the elections Jstreet will continue to oppose occupation and the settlements, in a sense being now less constrained by AIPAC or other established American-Jewish organizations. Jstreet is in favor of 2 states for 2 people, it is pro-Israel which is totally different from being anti-palestinian, and it considers peace and a 2-state solution to the conflict essential for the very survival of Israel as a democratic state of the Jews. He underscored two nasty aspects of the Likud-Netanyahu campaign : the tactics based on arousing anger and paranoid fear in Israeli voters, the racist incitement against the Arab-Israeli voters, and the partisan abuse of Congress breaching a bipartisan tradition of US support to Israel. Both BenAmi and immediately after him Rabbi Jacobs, President of the Union of Reform Judaism – which is the largest Jewish organization in the USA – blasted Netanyahu for causing a profound fracture between US Jews and Israel and obliging US Jews to choose between their loyalty and support to the Obama Administration and their concern for Israel’s survival in peace.

2. On the Israeli elections, several views were expressed in a sesssion that featured members of Knesset – Yaakov Peri, Hilik Bar, Ofer Shelah,Tamar Zandberg, Stav Shaffir. The bottom line was that : i) the was a shift of votes between right-wing parties in favor of Likud; ii) the center-left was unchanged ; iii) with the Joint Arab list Arab voters are no longer invisible, on the contrary more assertive of their rights as a national minority within Israel and of their place in the Israeli political system instead of boycotting it; iv) israel remains a very polarized society, socially and politically with the poor strata of society, mainly Oriental Jews, Ethiopian and others who despite poverty, growing inequalities, decay of the welfare system, continue to vote for right-wing or religious parties.

The opposition to the rightist government will be strong , hopefully unified (Labor, Meretz, Yesh Atid, the Arabs) but in the longer term there is a tremendous challenge for the Israeli left to enlarge its constituency, which is mostly limited to the liberal, secular bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, and reach out to the poor,the young, and the religious traditionalists, yet not fundamentalists.

There is a lesson for us JCALL here. We should try and have contacts with those Israelis as well (for instance members of the new Kulanu Party, an offshoot of Likud, more pragmatic on peace issues and oriented towards questions of sociali equity).
While the costs of the occupation and the settlements are huge (not just military expenditures, but resources taken away from welfare, health, education), people espcially the poor and disadvantaged do not see the link between their poverty and the occupation. Yet there also benefits acrruing to some powerful groups in the Israeli society (builders, contractors) : a quasi colonial economy based on Israel as the dominant economy and Palestine the dependent one.

Stav Shaffir from Labor talked very powerfully of two states : one is Israel proper, lacking social services and suffering from deepening poverty; the other one is the settlers’ state in the West Bank where the settlers enjoy good quality of life, good infrastructure and decent education for their children.

3. On the Palestinian side, Saeb Erkat, the chief PLO negotiator, painted a very disturbing picture : the PNA near financial collapse (not just because of the Israeli freeze on the transfer of funds from import duties, now unlocked at least partially) and unable to pay salaries to public sector employees; end to security cooperation with Israel, at least in part; no progress in Gaza, either on the front of rehabilitation of housing and the economy after the war’s immense destruction or on the agreement between Hamas, the PNA and Israel and Egypt whereby the PNA security forces would guard the border crossings in Gaza. He predicted or feared that if non violent struggle by Palestinians in the West Bank or resumption of negotiations or diplomacy internationalizing the conflict do not achieve tangible results there would be an outbreak of violence (third intifada ?).

4. On peace negotiations, the two public opinions although in favor of 2 states for 2 people – although the number of people supporting it is declining especially on the Palestinian side – are distrustful of the other side : they are not ready for a peace accord because they think there is no peace partner – Israeli or Palestinian – on the other side. Some people underlined the importance of the peace offer of the Arab League (2002 !!, never recognized or replied to by Israel) and of a convergence of regional interests between Israel, the PNA and the “moderate” Arab states against islamist extremism, therefore stressed the need for an Israeli diplomatic initiative now, pulling out of the isolation and seizing the chance for peace. Others pointing to the disintegration of states in the Middle East were more skeptical.

5. On people-to-people and the NGOs work, great stress on their importance ; they are important to underpin peace negotiations if public opinions remain supportive of the 2-state solution and if negotiations yield some tangible results. If no results, at least people-to-people work aiming at reconciliation, justice and cooperation can help fill the vacuum and fight against the danger of extremism and violence.

6. The Chief of staff of the White House addressed the conference with a very clear message. The media emphasized his strong sentence : after almost 50 years the occupation must end and Israel cannot control another people indefinitely. He added : i) military aid to Israel is stronger than ever and will not change to ensure Israel’s supremacy in war and security (see Iron Dome); ii) the Obama administration appreciates Jstreet’s positions and work especially with a view to ensuring a 2-state solution, which is not only essential for Israel’s future but also a key principle of US policy in the Middle East; iii) the US would be prepared to help guarantee Israel’s security once it withdraws from the West Bank where a sovereign and continuous (territorially) Palestinian state must be established.

7. Finally, on UN resolutions and options for the US, there was an interesting discussion at Jstreet followed by a workshop co-organized by the US Institute of Peace and Mitvim, an Israeli foreign policy think tank. Participants were diverse and views differed. Most prominent among those participants were Dennis Ross, the former US mediator, and Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Israel.

In summary, there was consensus that no advance in peace negotiations is possible with the current leaderships in I-P, given huge distance in positions and deep mistrust. In the short term it is imperative to try and prevent violence (rehabilitate Gaza, support the PNA budget and revive the economy, particularly by allowing housing and economic activity in Area C of the West Bank, entirely under Israeli control. In addition Israel should not suppress non violent protest by Palestinians. Finally, US and Europe should act on public opinion in Israel, for instance the business community worried about isolation and boycott).
Three possible formulas for a UN Security Council resolution : i) recognition of Palestine (US should not veto it); this would reduce asymmetry between I and P (there would be two states fighting and negotiating) and it would confirm the 1947 UN approval of the two states. Ii) a resolution on settlements. They are illegal in terms of international law, yet verbal condemnations are worthless, there should be sanctions on Israel (for instance labeling and boycotting settlements products as the EU Commission has been proposing). Iii) Most important of all and most difficult, a resolution with a detailed and balanced list of parameters for peace and 2 states (borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem). Such a resolution could be worked out by the US with France and other countries and would be a way not to impose a solution but push strongly the two parties to go back to negotiations. The big question as always in the past will be : will outside pressure work or be counterproductive ? How can the world community influence the two publics ? What incentives and what penalties, what sticks and what carrots do we have in regard to Israel and the Palestinians ?

8. On antisemitism and the future of the Jews in Europe, I spoke in a panel with the French Ambassador to the US and a Professor of Jewish studies from Oxford. Great interest in the audience, skepticism about the media exaggeration in the US (Jews are leaving or should leave Europe, there is no future for Jews in Europe, this is the prevailing tone), criticism of the superficial parallels with the 1930s, but worries yes. Antisemitism is an indicator of a malaise of society and deterioration of its democratic values, but Jews are victims, being harassed and killed as Jews. This is intolerable 70 years after the Shoah. I quoted statistics from the European Fundamental Rights Agency inquiry on perceptions of antisemitism in several EU countries (2012-13). We argued however that there is now a new type of antijewish hate and violence, of Islamist nature which is only in part an “import” from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and needs to be addressed and fought in its specificity.

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