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An Historical Shift: American Jews Rethink Israel

The Jewish push for peace is surging through the grassroots, but leaders and policy-makers are still turning a deaf ear.

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Political dynamism is precisely what J Street hopes to display at its policy conference. Expected speakers include Senator John Kerry and former Senator Chuck Hagel; 160 members of Congress will serve as hosts for J Street's first annual Gala Dinner. It might not rival the famous "roll call" of luminaries attending AIPAC's annual conferences (more than half of Congress showed up last May), but it is an impressive show of firepower all the same.

The ultimate issue is whether J Street will have any effect in bringing about a two-state solution, an idea that, despite official support, has been neglected in Washington nearly to the point of abandonment. Dana Goldstein is thrilled by the possibility that the rubber will finally meet the road. "J Street has had a great influence on intellectual progressives in DC," she says. "There is now a lobby group that engages ideas that have been out there without political will. They are the political arm to this movement."

Some critics on the left argue that conditions on the ground have already made the two-state solution unreachable. There are more than 500,000 Israeli settlers occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with more arriving every day, and Gaza remains under siege. Add to this the political scene inside Israel, where Netanyahu has balked at Washington's request for a settlement freeze, and you could say that in the sixteen years since the Oslo Accords were signed, the possibility of two states in historic Palestine has never been as far off as it is today.

Abunimah sees the new organization as having little impact. "A kinder and gentler AIPAC does not represent serious change," he says. "J Street is supposed to represent a tectonic shift, but it operates within the peace process paradigm and doesn't challenge it at all." Still, J Street has clearly panicked conservative Jews. And the Israeli embassy fired a warning shot across J Street's bow in October, when it warned that the lobby group was working against Israel's interests.

For its part, J Street knows these are desperate times for the liberal goal of a two-state solution. As Israel becomes more and more isolated globally, the Israeli government and the traditional lobby have only gotten more intransigent. At the AIPAC policy conference last spring, its executive director warned that Israel's enemies were establishing a "predicate for abandonment" that only AIPAC's faithful could reverse. Don't expect such hysteria at the J Street conference, but behind all the hoopla, the organization will similarly be trying to preserve the old ideal of a Jewish state. "Getting Israel another thirty F-16s won't help us combat the legitimacy issue [with] people who are trying to undermine the right of Israel to have a state." Luria says. "Jews need a state. And that legitimacy window--the cracks in that window are getting wider. They're dangerous. Dangerous."

Philip Weiss is the author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps .

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