Friday, May 2, 2008

On J Street

The invaluable weekly "News from the Front" roundup of news on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over at Foreign Policy Watch has directed me to a pair of op-eds in the Jerusalem Post relating to the new lobbying organization J Street. J Street aims to provide a more progressive counterweight to AIPAC and other hard-line pro Israel lobby groups, describing itself as the "political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement." It is dedicated to the notion that the United States can best help Israel by working aggressively towards negotiating a peace deal with Palestine, rather than by reflexively supporting some of the Israeli government's less constructive policies.

The first op-ed, by Isi Leibler, blasts J Street as essentially an anti-Israel group in disguise. The second, by Andrew Silow-Carroll, takes a somewhat more nuanced view, noting that all would benefit if mainstream U.S. politicians didn't have to obsessively pander to the right wing. Both pieces are worth reading, but I must say the first one made my head hurt a bit. In arguing that the Israeli government already bows compulsively to U.S. pressure (a pretty misguided notion if you ask me - often as not it seems to be the other way around), Leibler asserts:

...the Olmert government has lost the confidence of its people precisely because of unilateral concessions which undermine Israel's security and embolden terrorists. His government is an amen chorus which capitulates to every demand imposed on it by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It has provided weapons to the Palestinians which will almost certainly once again be redirected against Israel; it has released and granted amnesty to terrorists; and despite bitter opposition from the IDF, it has closed checkpoints and acceded to demands compromising security which have already resulted in Israeli casualties.

I suppose, in the strictest sense, Leibler is right (though I'm frankly pretty tired of policy being made based on a desire not to "embolden" one's enemies; once people are at the point where they're willing to blow themselves up in the middle of nightclubs, motivation becomes a pretty academic issue). The Olmert government has indeed made some concessions in recent months, opening a few border crossings, closing a few checkpoints etc. Anyone being honest, though, would acknowledge that Israel has consistently refused to make concessions on the one issue that really matters: settlements. As I have said before, Israelis need to decide - soon - whether they are truly willing to mortgage the future of their nation to the minority of hard-liners who view Israel's occupation of the West Bank as a religious calling. As Mr. Silow-Carroll points out, Prime Minister Olmert understands full well the implications of such a course. He is quoted as saying that:

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights [among Palestinians of the occupied territories], then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished."

In other words, Israel simply cannot continue to occupy the West Bank and remain a democratic and Jewish state. That Mr. Olmert evidently lacks the political muscle to act on this realization is regrettable, but does nothing to diminish its prescience.

I am not so naive to think that a final peace deal in the Levant would be based exactly on the 1967 "Green Line." More than half a million settlers live in the West Bank. Some will almost surely have to stay there. The problem, though, is that settlements have been built so as to carve up the territory in such a way that it could never constitute a viable state. No sovereign people can be expected to navigate a maze of foreign military checkpoints in order to move around in their own territory. George Kennan once said that power makes a mockery of sovereignty. Such a situation would be more than a mockery; it would be a farce.

Finally, it is worth noting that, over the last decade, the political situation in Israel and Palestine has deteriorated dramatically. The Palestinians are weak and divided, with half their people under military occupation and beholden to a semi-functioning government of questionable legitimacy, and the other half trapped in an impoverished, crowded battle zone, beholden to a government that is not even recognized or dealt with by the rest of the world. The Israelis, meanwhile, are stuck in political deadlock with the far right slowly creating "facts on the ground" that increase the difficulty of a final deal with each passing day.

In this environment, an American lobby that pushes for both sides to make real concessions and come to a lasting peace strikes me as long overdue.

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