[JStreet] Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis
Zeek moves Forward

[JStreet] Plenary session: Why Two States? Why Now?

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

I was a few minutes late to this session -- I'm pretty slow-moving at this stage in the pregnancy, and the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom Rabbinic Cabinet lunch was on another floor. By the time I got in, the large ballroom was entirely full; I wound up in an unofficial overflow room with a handful of other laptop users, and I missed the introduction, whatever it may have been. As the (three-hour-long!) session unfolded, it became clear that this is a three-part prorgram: first a keynote address from General Jones, then a panel of speakers offering Israeli perspectives on the need for a two-state solution, then a panel of speakers offering American perspectives on the same theme.

Photo by Dan Sieradski / mobius1ski, used with permission.

General James M. Jones begins by promising us that this administration will be represented at all future JStreet conferences, which draws wild applause from the room.

For going on six decades, General Jones says, the abiding friendship between the United States and Israel has been based on deep connections, "founded as much on personal experience as on geopolitics." Through countless interactions with Israelis in military and in private life, he's been blessed with many Israeli friends; his own exposure to Israel began when he was a young Marine training there in the early 1990s, and he's been impressed with the professionalism of the IDF ever since. He developed an understanding of Israel's unique security concerns and tried to bring that to his work serving as as special envoy for Middle East security.

His dream, he says, is to see peace in the Middle East. He says "without equivocation, Israeli security and Middle East peace are inseparable. Neither can exist without the other, and only a 2-state solution can provide the lasting dignity that people of both sides deserve." But time, he says, is not necessarily on our side. "The imperative for peace is now."

"America's commitment to Israel's peace is not a slogan but rather a pillar of our foreign policy. Time and again the US has given meaning to this commitment by working to advance regional stability...and by pursuing peace between Israel and her neighbors. Under President Obama, this commitment to Israel and to peace is as strong as ever, as is our coordination with the Israeli government. With all the problems the administration faces globally, if there is one problem I would recommend to the president, if he could solve any one problem, this would be it. Finding a solution to this problem would have ripples which would run globally and effect many other problems; this is the epicenter, and it needs to be engaged seriously, and I'm delighted that this administration is doing so with such enthusiasm and commitment and I hope that the fruits of that labor will be visible in the near future."

Regarding Iran, he tells us that Iran needs to live up to its commitments to reduce its stockpile of fissionable material. "The suspension of Iran's enrichment program remains our goal, as called for in five UN security resolutions," he says. The President has repeatedly said that Iran has a choice; it can live up to its obligations and be a responsible member of the international community or it can face increased isolation.

Regarding the Goldstone Report, Jones says that we (meaning the Obama Administration) outlined our issues with it clearly and completely. "Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy with independent institutions fully capable of addressing allegations through domestic processes and we encourage them to do so." (As I posted recently, so do I; I just wish I had any confidence that Israel were actually interested in a real, transparent investigation of the human rights abuses of Operation Cast Lead.) The Obama administration is committed, he says, to a two-state solution: a safe and secure Israel beside a viable state of Palestine. "To that end, we've called on all parties to meet their responsibilities and to take steps to create an environment in which negotiations can proceed."

"The time has come to relaunch negotiations without preconditions," says Jones. Special Envoy George Mitchell is working now to help bring this about, and the President and Secretary Clinton remain engaged in the process.

"We must remember the people of Gaza and southern Israel," Jones says -- it's incumbent on us to remain conscious both of those who suffered rocket fire in Sderot and of the humanitarian needs in Gaza. He also calls for the immediate release of Gilad Shalit, which draws applause from the room. "As we look around this troubled world full of challenges to peace and stability and challenges to our way of life as free people, no challenge is greater, nor the rewards more substantial, than a just and secure solution to the conflict."

"As we advance the cause of peace togehter we will strengthen the unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel as it has existed for more than sixty years," Jones says, closing pretty much as he began. I'm intrigued by the extent to which the official government speakers feel the need to continually reassert their support of Israel. There isn't much complexity here. Though in general I think the conference organizers have done a good job of acknowledging that there are multiple narratives about Israel and Palestine, the government speakers tend to be far less nuanced.

For response, we hear from Congressman Robert Wexler, President of the Center for Middle East Peace. This president faces an unprecedented number of problems, he says -- Iraq, the recession, health care -- but the President has declared Middle East peace to be a major issue for him from the beginning. "The President's position is to ask all the leaders of the conflict to take risks for peace," says Congressman Wexler. "He has stated unequivocally that it's time for the Arab world to begin normalizing their relations with Israel...it's time for the Palestinians to end incitement... and also, the state of Israel has responsibilities as well, which start -- as General Jones said -- with ending the settlement program as it is currently defined, by agreeing to a settlement freeze, by opening up in the West Bank a degree of commercial and humanitarian cooperation so that the Palestinian people can begin to prosper to a degree they have not otherwise done."

The moderator (I think) asks, does the President's stance on the Goldstone report make him seem more, or less, pro-Israeli? Congressman Wexler says he doesn't know whether that stance did, or didn't, win the president friends -- though he notes that Hamas generally acts like thugs, targeting civilian populations. "This president in my view, given what he's already done, is as firmly a 100% pro-Israel American president as we could ever have!"

Again, I'm fascinated by how everyone feels compelled to keep restating that. From where I sit, of course Obama is a pro-Israel American president, could we please move on and discuss something substantive? (This would be part of why I enjoy the smaller sessions more than the plenaries; the political speakers at these big plenaries feel so compelled to restate the party line that very little interesting or creative is being said.) 

We move now to a different part of the plenary session: two panels of speakers who will speak on the question of "why two states, why now?" The first panel represents Israeli interests: Bernard Avishai, Business Consultant and author; Ami Ayalon, Former Member of Knesset (Labor) and Former Head of the Shin Bet; and Haim Ramon, Former Member of Knesset (Kadima) and Former Vice Prime Minister. The moderator is Richard Wolffe, author of Renegade: The Making of a President; he's also a former Senior White House Correspondent for Newsweek.

First up is Bernard Avishai. "Why a two-state solution, why now? What I want to focus on, to start, is the issue of the Israeli economy," Avishai says. "We often speak of the Palestinian economy as a focus for nation-building; well, Israel has an economy too." Avishai interviewed Netanyahu some years ago; Netanyahu argued that peace was a "nice to have" thing but not a "need to have" thing. "Most what is driving the Israeli economy, Israelis carry inside their heads," is how he reprises what Netanyahu said at that time. "He could not have had it more wrong."

When you talk about high-tech businesses, Israel is not a place that's going to sell a lot of stuff to consumers, Avishai says. Israel is a solutions engine. What Netanyahu didn't understand is that people who are building solutions for other companies have to have deep, abiding relationships with those companies. Israel has had great success, but they need much higher rates of growth. Israel is a country in which a fifth of its budget goes to the military; it only has a 56% participation rate in the economy because of the Hareidi population; a third of Israel's children are under the poverty line. Its national debt is 75% of its GDP and growing. As a result, he says, Israel's government is eating its seed corn right now.

"Without peace, without integration as opposed to diplomatic isolation, Israel's high-tech businesses are going to wither on the vine. You cannot eat algorithms."

We get a little glib, Avishai says, when we talk about the two-state solution. Ten or fifteen years ago, Tom Friedman started talking about the necessity for Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, to get a divorce. "This has been a conceit of the conversation ever since." No, he says. "No: Palestine and Israel together will be nodes in global network, and they will be nodes in a regional network, and what we need to start talking about is integration." Water, currency, labor migration, air space, roads and bridges, defense -- there is no jurisdiction that the state of Israel is going to be able to exercise in the future without a deep cooperation with the Palestinian state and Jordan.

"We start talking about a two-state solution: obviously both sides are trying to preserve, for great reasons, the poignancy of the national cultural life, and are trying to preserve distinction through political apparatus. Obviously that's the reason for a two-state solution when all other reasons fall away. But," he says, "a two-state solution is really a three-state solution," because of partnership with Jordan; "it's really a 20-state solution" because it requires developing partnerships with all the nations of the Mediterranean. "We have to begin to understand that Israel is not a nation that goes it alone."

Ami Ayalon begins, "I joined the military when I was eighteen; the idea was to serve four years and then return to my kibbutz in the Jordan valley. It was a great idea," he says, 32 years later, having served his whole life in capacities including serving as the head of Shin Bet. He took that role on a mere two months after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. "Next week we commemorate 14 years since his assassination," he reminds us.

"I joined the Shin Bet as a director in January '96, and after one month as director we lost 57 Israeli citizens in our streets and in addition 217 wounded in less than ten minutes. It was the most difficult wave of violence that we knew since the creation of the state of Israel."

"We had to face it," he says. "And we did."

After four years, he finished his term, and then the intifada began. "The intifada did not surprise us. It was, in our assessment, when we submitted our analysis to the scenario of 2000, we said that the intifada is written on all the walls in Arabic, in Hebrew, in English; we just have to read it. And we did not read it."

2000 was the most peaceful year they knew since they conquered or liberated the West Bank, he says -- until the fall of 2000 when the second intifada began. (Interesting that he uses both of those terms, conquered and liberated, together.) "How could we do it? Some people will tell you it was the Shin Bet. I was the director, and I'm telling you: not quite." Upon analysis, they came to a conclusion: the importance of hope, "or in other words, the sport of the Palestinian street is the peace process, which influenced first the terror policy executed by Hamas and second the security policy executed by Palestinian Authority." 

If the Palestinians believed they could get a Palestinian state through negotiations / peace process, they would be against terror, he says flatly.

"A word about Hamas. We see Hamas as a terror organization, and it is -- but it is not only a terror organizations. Hamas is ideology; they have a political wing, charity, education, etc. Hamas is an alternative to diplomacy. If Palestinians do not believe in the peace process, because they do not see a viable peace process, they will support Hamas."

Ultimately, "Security for us means hope for the Palestinians," he says, and the room applauds.

"The question was, why a two-state solution now? And the answer is, because of the alternative. The alternative is the one-state solution," says Haim Ramon. If we will not reach a solution based on two states, very soon one state will be the solution and that will mean the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. These are the alternatives, he says. If someone is saying that he wants a two-state solution but he's not in a hurry, that means that the one state solution is coming.

September 1, this year, between the sea and the Jordan river, more Palestinian students started school than Jewish ones. Five or ten years from now, there will be a clear majority of Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river. Palestinians say, we want one person, one vote. Mandela was praised for this. Why can't it be what we want? But Ramon argues that this path inevitably leads toward the end of the dream of a Jewish and democratic state.

"If you're really a Zionist, your main concern is that we create a two-state solution," Ramon says. "The most important solution for the existence of Israel as  Jewish and democratic state is the end of the Occupation."

"Therefore, the major enemy of the state of Israel is the status quo situation!" The room applauds again. Netanyahu says if the Palestinians don't recognize Israel as a Jewish state there can be no peace process, but that means the status quo -- and the status quo is not the enemy of the Palestinians, but the enemy of the state of Israel. Either a two-state or a one-state solution could work for the Palestinians, but Israel has only one option: the two-state solution. "We cannot annex, de facto, the Territories -- because of Israel's interest, because of Zionist interest, not because President Obama is asking us or the Palestinians are threatening us," he argues.

"What we have to do is make clear, first of all to ourselves...that we will do our best to maintain Israel as Jewish and democratic. And that means that we should take even unilateral steps to end Occupation. Like what we did in Gaza. I know many people do not like it! But if the alternative is to wait until we reach peace, 5-10 years from now, which will be too late, then we have no other choice." The disengagement from Gaza was the right decision, he says, despite the problems Israel is now facing.

Israel will not annex the Territories, he says. Israel should annex the settlements and pay for them with a decent land swap. That's what's needed, he says. "We cannot allow that the destiny of us will be determined by the Palestinians or the Arab world."

As part of the moderated session after this first part of the panel, Avishai says he's allergic to the notion of "demographic problem." There are Arab citizens of Israel who've been Hebrew-speakers for 3 generations; "we have to engage with them as people and not as numbers," he says, and the room bursts into applause. To him, the demographic problem is that in Jerusalem where he lives, 45% of kids are Hareidi and 15% are National Orthodox, 30% are Arab and the remaining 10% are those in the German colony where he lives.

"The real problem," he says, in maintaining "a democratic state with a Jewish character," is the fact that 600,000 people in and around Jerusalem and the settlements "are beginning to call themselves Judean." (That name suggests that they are rightwing settlers, asserting their right to the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, and are therefore not interested in handing any of this territory over to Palestinians.) The problem Israel is increasingly going to have with the status quo is, how many Israelis are going to want to fight "Judeans" for the sake of the Palestinians? "This to me is the real ticking bomb in the country right now."

(Other questions are posed to the other panelists, but I didn't take them down. I think my focus is flagging, especially given how far away I am from the actual action of this very large, and very long, plenary session.)

Then we move into the part of the session where we'll be hearing from panelists representing American interests: Ambassador Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director of the Foreign Policy Program at The Brookings Institution and former Ambassador of the Unites States to Israel; and Mel Levine, former member of Congress and former member of the board of AIPAC. 

First up in this inning is Congressman Levine. "Let me begin with a candid personal statement and acknowledgment of my own point of view," he says. "Much of what has driven my personal involvement in Middle East issues throughout my adult life has been my commitment to work for Israel's security and survival." While maintaining her qualitative military superiority is vital, he says, her greatest security will come "from a stable, secure peace."

Rabin concluded, after a lifetime of leading Israelis into battle, that peace was possible. "We are only nine months into the Obama presidency and much remains to be done, but already he has set a tone which makes it much more likely that other countries -- whose cooperation is essential -- will be receptive to American leadership, both on issues of Middle East peace and more broadly as well." Obama, he notes, has not waited until the end of his administration to engage with this issue.

During the 2007 and 2008 election campaign, and in the early months of the Obama presidency, Levine says, "I don't shock easily, but I've been taken aback by the vitriol, the dishonesty, and the relentless smears by those on the far right who want President Obama to fail." The room applauds. "Those who care deeply about Israel and about peace must stand up to those who will say or do anything to undermine the enterprise. This leads to the core issue I was asked to discuss today -- the American politics of achieving the two-state solution."

For better or for worse, he says, the politics are very straightforward: focus on facts and objectives, and fight the smears. "For those of us who care about Israel's future, nothing but achieving a two-state solution will enable Israel to attain...peace with her neighbors and security from a hostile state in Iran."

What, he asks, did the last administration actually achieve in this regard? "Not much." For all the tough talk about Iran and the praise for Israel, by the end of the Bush regime Iran was closer to nuclear weapons and Hamas had taken over Gaza and American influence in the region waned. "American engagement toward peace was belated and largely ineffective," says Levine. "None of that helped Israel, and none of that helped American interests in the region."

In the health care debate, vicious attacks have been leveled and President Obama has responded with calmness, clearness, and decision. He will need to bring that same energy and that same set of tactics to bear on the process of creating peace in the Middle East, Levine says.

"One of my most treasured personal possessions is a letter I received from then-president Yitzchak Rabin on my retirement from Congress," Levine says. "Rabin gave his life for daring to work for peace to protect Israel. He deeply believed, after a lifetime of wars, that achieving peace was the only way to secure Israel's future. I believe that too." A two-state solution will protect America's interest by protecting Israel and leading the Middle East toward a prosperous future. "Reminding America that this can only be achieved through hard bargaining with intensive early American engagement and leadership, not simply feelgood rhetoric, will be essential." This will yield success in the region and support at home.

Our last speaker of the day is Ambassador Martin Indyk, who begins with "wow" -- apparently he had no idea there were so many of us!

"Mel raised two points I want to pick up on," he begins. The first is his own personal commitment to ensuring Israel's security and wellbeing, as a path toward peace. "I want to identify myself with those remarks because I came to that conclusion 35 years ago when I was a student in Jerusalem and the Yom Kippur war broke out." The critical role that the United States, in the form of Kissinger, played in forging a peace after that horrendous war -- after that, Indyk says, "I became convinced that the US role in helping Israel attain piece was absolutely critical."

That is why, he quips, he chose to make aliyah to Washington and to work in US diplomacy towards solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The second thing that Leving said which Indyk wants to pick up on is the mention of Yitzchak Rabin, whose 14th yarzheit we'll observe next week. "When Yitzchak Rabin came to Washington to sign the Oslo II accords in 1995 with Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak -- who hadn't attended the first ceremony in 1993 -- showed up. As did King Hussein of Jordan. As did the Saudi prime minister. This was recognition on the part of the Arab states that peace was possible." 

That night, Yitzchak Rabin -- for the first time -- spoke about the need for a Palestinian state. "He did not until that time endorse a Palestinian state," Indyk tells us. "And yet he endorsed it in these memorable words: 'what we need is separation, your people and my people; we need separation not out of hatred but out of respect.'" That was Rabin's vision and that was his purpose in trying to resolve the conflict. Two states, Indyk says, built out of respect and not hatred.

"The immense tragedy for the Palestinians and for the Israelis is that the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin turned that process of separation out of respect into a process of separation out of hatred," Indyk tells us. "Our challenge, and in particular the challenge of American diplomacy, is to restore the respect."

For seven years after President Clinton's efforts to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel ended in failure, the Bush administration walked away from the process, Indyk says. "This for me was a compounding of the tragedy that began with Rabin's assassination." Thousands were killed in the absence of a diplomatic framework, and the whole edifice of peacemaking built from Kissinger through Clinton was entirely destroyed, along with the trust and respect between the two peoples.

"It was therefore somewhat baffling to me that two years ago, in Jerusalem, Condoleeza Rice stood up and said that it was a national interest of the United States to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel." No one paid much attention to that statement, Indyk points out, probably because there "wasn't a lot of credibility in the Bush administration's efforts at the end of his term to pick up the pieces."

But this declaration of national interest has profound meaning, he says. "It means that the United States considers that this is something that is important to us, not just to Israel or the Arabs or the Palestinians." General Jones said to us today that of all issues we're facing this is the most important one to solve. "This is now recognized by Democrat and Republican administrations alike," Indyk says. Viewed from Washington, the greatest threat to Israel's survival today comes from the failure to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian situation.

"Beyond that, we have a national interest in the security of our Arab allies," Indyk says, and those nations are also threatened by the failure to resolve this situation, because Iran -- backed by Hamas and Hezbollah -- are exploiting this failure in order to send to the Arab street a message that violence and terrorism work. "That is a very dangerous message," Indyk says; it has resulted in Ahmedinejad and Nasrullah being more popular than they otherwise would have been. "In order to reverse this message, we have to be able to show that peace and reconciliation works."

Finally, he says, America's own standing in the Arab and Muslim world is diminished when we show that we can't make a difference in this situation. The Palestinian situation is, in the eyes of the Arab world, symbolic of the humiliation that they have suffered at the hands of the West throughout the history of colonialism; for that reason also we need to work to create change in this region.

"When you stand up and support the two-state solution," Indyk says in closing, "you are doing so in support of America's interests."

We move now to questions and answers, and I'm making the executive decision that it's time for me to stop liveblogging this session now. Thanks for reading, everyone!