J Street and the ATFP are norm breakers

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida: In “Transforming America’s Israeli Lobby, Dan Fleshler argues that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is not helping Israel’s long-term interests and it is not properly reflecting the progressive sentiments of the American Jewish community. Fleshler explains the complexity of the Jewish lobby in America and urges Congress to listen to all shades of Jewish opinion, not only to AIPAC.

There are signs that challengers to AIPAC in the Jewish American community are gaining political muscle. J Street is a new Washington lobby that seeks to promote the interests of Israel through peace advocacy, opposition to colonial policies and dialogue with adversaries. This young organization held its first national meeting in Washington, DC from October 25-28. Eighteen dovish Jewish agencies and movements, including Americans for Peace Now, participated in this event. The conference had an impressive list of speakers and a thousand participants. A sizable group from the House and Senate attended. A number of Arab Americans were invited as speakers, including Dr. Ziad Asali, the CEO of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP).

J Street must have observed with satisfaction that ATFP, a dovish Palestinian American organization, recently convened an outstanding event in DC. On October 16, at the Fourth Annual Gala of ATFP, the national security adviser, General James L. Jones, affirmed President Barack Obama’s commitment to the formation of a Palestinian state and his eagerness to revive the peace process. The General said: “The time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions to reach a final-status agreement on two states. Having the national security adviser a keynote speaker at ATFP reflects a new climate of understanding in Arab-American relations.

It is important for Arabs to pay serious attention to political differences within the American Jewish community. It has been said there are certain Jewish lobbies on Capitol Hill that are more effective in the defence of the Palestinian cause than the best of Arab advocacy groups. I am not sure of how valid this observation is, but there is a point to be made of the near-magical ability of the pro-Israel lobby on the Hill, which often manages to integrate American and Israeli interests.

Departing from AIPAC’s hawkish approach, J Street has established a solid network of Jewish soft power in Washington, power that promotes win-win “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-American interests. When Israel launched its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza last December, J Street sent a sobering message:

“Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million-and-a-half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them, said Daniel Trieman.

Similarly, ATFP is developing its own reconciliatory advocacy on Capitol Hill and gaining access to the White House. Listen to Asali:

“It is up to both peoples to decide whether they will allow themselves to be driven by extremist agendas, or to pursue what is plainly in their national interests. Their past trespasses against each other, both real and imagined, have to give way to the recognition that Israelis and Palestinians clearly now need exactly the same thing: an end of conflict based on two states.

Innovative thinking links progressive Palestinians and Jews. Both ATFP and J Street are self-critical and respectful of the adversary. Both are encouraged and influenced by Obama. Both believe in the US ability to be the honest broker of peace.

Moderation is a response to unsustainable realities on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. Many Palestinians are desperate because of an enduring occupation, growing Israeli settlements and a painful separation wall. Progressive Palestinians are keen to assure Jews that they are behind security for Israel. When articulated clearly, this Palestinian message resonates well with a large segment of the Jewish community, both in Israel and in America.

J Street is affected by an awakening of the American Jewish community to the consequences of the occupation, a provocative Israeli regime, Palestinian demography, a new American policy and a tarnished image of Tel Aviv. In J Street’s paradigm, Israel’s security requires ending the occupation; there is awareness of the natural capacity of an occupier to do harm to the occupied. A growing segment of the Jewish community recognizes that moderate Jews do have partners among like-minded Palestinians.

The cooperation of J Street with ATFP should be a model for wider Arab and Jewish reconciliation, if peace is ever to materialise. Arab and Jewish Americans are in a unique position to be norm-breakers; they live in a social climate that allows them to recognize the value of partnership across the dividing line. When Arabs and Jews become accustomed to self-criticism they will be on their way to conflict resolution. Both J Street and ATFP have already demonstrated authenticity and audacity, two rare qualities in Middle East politics. Both have a long way to become the mainstream.

Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz ([email protected]) is an Arab American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former secretary for the Middle East of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Daily Star.

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