Middle East

J Street: Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace

Israeli soldiers stand guard opposite Palestinian and foreign activists during a protest against Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Maasarah, near Bethlehem, on Nov. 6. (Photo: Musa Al-Shaer/ AFP-Getty Images)

The J Street conference was by any account a tremendous success. For the first time ever, a pro-Israel organization convened in Washington to voice constructive criticism of the Israeli government's more extreme policies.

J Street defines itself as "pro-Israel", but also supports a Palestinian state. It wants the United States government to push hard for an immediate settlement freeze as a prelude to full-scale negotiations.

J Street's leaders insist that it was not created in opposition to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. The organization's executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, even praises AIPAC for promoting strong U.S.-Israel ties. J Street is, however, the un-AIPAC. AIPAC pressures the United States government to let Israel do whatever it wants to do. J Street pressures the government to push both Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. It is pro-Israel and it believes that being pro-Israel requires being pro-Palestinian too.

That is why it has become so controversial. The traditional pro-Israel approach is to view efforts toward peace as a threat to Israel. J Street, on the other hand, believes that the status quo—and particularly the continuation of the occupation—poses a grave threat to Israel's survival, while successful negotiations are essential to its continued existence.

At the time of J Street's creation, few believed it would survive. But in just 18 months it has built itself into a force in Washington. Its first annual convention last week attracted 1500 supporters from around the country. General James Jones, the president's national security adviser, addressed the crowd and said that he stood with J Street. 148 members of Congress endorsed the conference, while 44 came to the dinner on the last night. Media attendance was in full force and coverage was extensive and positive.

Why was J Street such big news? Because nothing like it had ever happened before. In Washington, support for Israel's policies is almost automatic. Those who have promoted a balanced Middle East policy have been relegated to the fringes. Until now.

But the big question is what happens next. Now that it is clearly "on the map," will J Street retreat to a safer position or hold firm? After all, it is being denounced by both the traditional Israel lobby and by the government of Israel (the Israeli ambassador boycotted the event, unlike the Jordanian ambassador who came and delivered an address).

A first indication of J Street's determination to build on its success and push even harder came within a day of the conference. Members of Congress close to AIPAC introduced a resolution condemning the Goldstone report that is so one-sided it might have been drafted by the Likud Central Committee. J Street did not waste a moment. It issued a statement that it would not support the resolution.

This is a big deal because the pro-Israel community in the United States has, almost without exception, lined up behind the Israeli opposition to the Goldstone Report and Judge Goldstone in particular. By withholding its support for the House resolution, J Street is sending a clear message that it intends to offer alternatives to initiatives that it perceives as bad for the United States and bad for Israel.

But what will J Street support?

It wants to support President Barack Obama in his pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It wants to support Obama's push for a settlement freeze. It wants to support Obama's determination to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

But it cannot effectively do that unless President Obama has the will to take the actions J Street wants to support. After all, supporting Obama's policies doesn't mean anything if Obama's policies are weak or inconsistent.

Unfortunately, right now, Obama seems unwilling to push hard for his own policies.

That is why J Street's next task is to get a clear message to the president of the United States that there is a growing American Jewish constituency that is determined to be as effective in supporting politicians who promote peace as the old lobby has been in working against them. And that means that J Street has to raise the funds to protect pro-peace incumbents and candidates with as much skill as the other side employs in raising funds to reward its friends and defeat its enemies.

J Street understands that. It is idealistic but it is not mushy-headed. It will do whatever it takes to prevail. That is why those of us ready for Israeli-Palestinian peace should celebrate its success.

This article was originally published by Common Ground News: www.commongroundnews.org.