Posted by on September 04, 2012 in Blog
Today, the Arab American Institute and J Street co-sponsored an event at the DNC titled "Israeli Palestinian Peace: A US Policy Imperative."
The panel focused on the American political calculus behind the current impasse in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and prospects for furthering the peace process after the November elections. Speakers considered the lack of movement on the issue, possible ways to reinvigorate the peace process, and the differeces in foreign policy expectations depending on the victor of the upcoming election.
The first speaker was Jeremy Ben Ami, President of J Street, who identified and tried to respond to five basic issues impeding more direct U.S. action to resolve the conflict: the low priority of the issue, the general feeling that little can be done, the high political risk, the prevalence of other pressing national issues, and the lack of interest from parties on the ground. He argued that supporters of a two-state solution have a narrowing window, especially in light of increasing illegal settlement of the West Bank. He said that since the upcoming presidency may be the last opportunity for a viable two-state solution, “we will be held accountable by the rest of the world for failing to solve this problem,” and also urged the audience to consider “the moral perspective,” given that it is the “last situation on the face of the earth where you have one power that has conquered another people” and continues to exercise dominion over it.
Ben Ami also argued that “Israel is simply not a voting issue for the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans. This is a myth…that American Jews are a single-issue constituency, and it is a myth that we as a community are uniformly hawkish on the issue of Israel.” He told that he audience that the political will to enforce a solution is within our grasp, and that “it’s our job to create the political space to let that happen.”
Ben Ami was followed by AAI President Jim Zogby, who recounted the historical unwillingness of the Democratic Party to acknowledge Palestinian issues, and the growing consensus that more direct action needs to be taken to appease both sides of the conflict. He mentioned Obama’s attempts to construct a peace settlement, and the lack of support he received from Congress for parameters that were in most respects identical to the Bush parameters. He argued that “the president gets that there are two peoples with legitimate concerns,” and that “if America is going to play a role in the future of the Middle East, we have to be careful that we are on the side of the people” in the region.
He cautioned that the deep partisan divide on the Israeli-Palestinian issue – as evidenced by AAI’s latest polling – is an issue of deep concern, but that equally troublesome is the growing number of people who have effectively disengaged from the issue entirely, which he credits to the continuing stagnation of the peace process. The only way to reverse this trend, he said, is with more public support for a solution, and more direct action by the president. “The president needs to show leadership, but he needs to be supported when he does… it is possible to make change, but there’s gotta be leadership, and I think it’s gotta start with us.”
Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) agreed that the possibility exists for stronger executive action on the issue, but that it requires public support for political figures to take the necessary political risks. He called on the audience to “build that constituency,” and fight against baseless accusations of “anti-Israel” sentiments. “The most pro-Israel position I can think of,” said Ellison,” is for an Israeli Jew to get on a bus in Tel Aviv and not have to worry about what’s gonna happen.” Ellison also identified the “most pro-Palestinian position” as the opportunities for a Palestinian farmer to harvest and sell his goods without harassment, checkpoints, and occupation.
He argued that one of the strongest ways to build support for a peace plan is to expose policymakers and influential public figures to the situation on the ground. “We need to reach out to people and literally bring them there, and let them see the lay of the land.”
Ellison argued that any peace process at all – even a failing one – is better than the alternative, both in terms of present stability and the prospects for future peace.
Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN), the final panelist, warned that “Israel cannot continue to exist with the status quo because time is not on their side.” He said that population growth both in the West Bank in within Israel’s 1948 borders are rapidly precluding the possibility of two separate states. He said that the “Arab Spring” reinforced the imperative for decisive action.
“You look at the Arab Spring, which isn’t working out quite like we hoped it would… it showed that people there want democracy, want self-government. If they want it in Tunisia, and they want it in Egypt, and they want it in Libya, and they want it in Syria, why wouldn’t they want it… in the West Bank as well. People need to accept that the people in the West bank have the right to self-governance, and that they are human beings. I think there are people… who don’t view Palestinians as human beings.”
Congressman Cohen believes that if elected, President Obama would be able to achieve a long-term settlement to the conflict, and it would be “one of his great legacies to the world. “
A Romney presidency, on the other hand, “is game over. Mitt Romney would be game over for Israel’s existence. Not trying to force the process to being about a two state solution… would lead to Israel’s non-existence.”
The panel was also joined by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) who spoke about the situation in Iran, and tried to disentangle the dual U.S. commitments to “the existence and safety of Israel, unequivocally” and the commitment “to the peoples of the Middle East” to be free, productive, and safe. He made a case for holding both positions simultaneously in a manner that is “not irreconcilable.”
Convened jointly by AAI and J Street to elevate the discourse among policy makers about the region, the forum did not disappoint on the subject of the right of return. Jeremy Ben Ami and Jim Zogby disagreed on the implementation of the right of return, with Ben Ami expressing opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees, and Zogby arguing that a solution for the refugee crisis is an imperative for regional stability. They both agreed, however, that such questions were important to address and that differences can be reconciled in the framework of a long-term peace agreement.
You can watch the entire discussion on our Live-Stream channel below.
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