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J Street Sticks to the Script at its Annual Conference, Despite Coming to a Two-State Dead-End

The 'Palestine papers' revealed a grim prospect for the existing peace process, but J Street continues to talk about the need for 'American leadership.'

When the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby  J Street launched in 2008, it was big news. Coupled with a new presidential administration pledging sustained engagement on Israel/Palestine, the thought many had was that this was the moment a lasting peace deal could be forged between the Israelis and Palestinians.

J Street’s “No. 1 agenda item,” as founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami  told the New York Times  in September 2009, was to “do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back.” J Street’s strategy of advocating “for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution” seemed on mark, given that President Barack Obama  told the world in Cairo in June 2009 that he intended to “personally pursue” the two-state solution.   

The goal of a two-state solution, in which Israel and a Palestinian state exist side-by-side, remains J Street's message as around 2,400 activists gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend for the group’s second annual conference. “It could not be more urgent for the administration to seize the initiative right now on peace and a two-state solution,” said J Street spokesman Isaac Luria.

But what happens when that goal, and the strategy of strong American leadership on the issue, seems out of reach? For some on the left, the current political situation means that J Street needs to adjust to the reality of fading prospects for a two-state solution. 

While it’s clear, as blogger M.J. Rosenberg put it, that J Street has “opened up room” in the debate over Israel, progressive critics have called for new strategies to pressure Israel, such as the growing  boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Indeed, even some of J Street’s own constituents are frustrated with the Obama administration and are exploring more forceful ways to change Israeli behavior. 

For instance, the liberal Zionist organization  Meretz USA, which has close ties to J Street, recently  came out in favor of a boycott of West Bank settlements. Others at the conference, like Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, echoed Meretz USA’s stance.  

“The question of boycott, for me, is very simple,” said Sfard. “I cannot imagine a cent of my money being given to settlement products or any activity that is enhancing the settlement projects. For me it is like actively supporting illegal or immoral abuse of others’ rights.”  

The Obama administration’s weak stance on the issue has become even more obvious in light of recent events. The administration backed down in the face of the pro-Israel lobby and a right-wing Israeli government that keeps issuing tenders for new illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip remains under a debilitating siege imposed by Israel. The release by Al Jazeera of the “Palestine Papers,” nearly 1,700 leaked documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, shows that despite numerous Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem, the right of return and more, the Israeli government refused to forge a deal.   

The Obama administration's ambivalence to the continued entrenchment of settlements on Palestinian land--a problem many consider to be the biggest obstacle to a two-state solution--reached new heights with the Feb. 18 U.S. veto of a UN resolution that condemned settlements as “illegal.”   

“On this issue, Obama has really dropped the ball in a big way,” said Rosenberg, a former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He may have set the cause back with that veto, and that veto will reverberate in the progressive camp for a long time.” 

It was the first veto since Obama took office, and was in stark contrast to past administration calls for Israel to stop settlement expansion. J Street came out against a U.S. veto. There are about 500,000 settlers living on confiscated land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the settlements, along with the separation barrier, have created a disjointed Palestinian landscape that makes a Palestinian state look less and less likely. 

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