J Street, the liberal pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby, is now holding its second conference, having held its first in October 2009. I attended the first out of both curiosity and a desire to support the organization by making a strong first showing at its first conference. Because of both my schedule and my wallet I'm forced to watch the conference by video feed from its website. I watched some of the panels by live stream on Sunday and then watched most of the recorded sessions from Sunday and Monday today. The conference ends today with a lobbying day of congressional offices. Having attended an AIPAC conference in 1995 during the Oslo conference and the J Street conference in 2009, what struck me about the former was that it was mostly intended to fire up the troops and allow politicians to compete in kissing up to the Israeli lobby. J Street instead of just conducting workshops on messaging and the upcoming election cycle in the U.S., attempted to educate its supporters about the conflict by inviting members of the Palestinian government and the Israeli Knesset to the conference to serve on panels.
Nachman Shai, a former academic expert on the Israeli nuclear deterrent and now an MK for Kadima, was very open. "There is no chance for electoral reform or for a constitution with the coalition parties." This means that Israel is incapable of producing the type of party system that will produce the two-party coalitions that ran the peace process in Dublin. It was these coalitions that allowed the dominant party to give up Ireland's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland. Israel has the much tougher task of giving up a physical occupation and hundreds of settlements after 43 years.
Oren Magnezy, a former aide to Ariel Sharon who is now an MK in Kadima was honest about Israeli decision making. "We work at an emotional level when making decisions. Its a lot about messaging. We have an obligation to reach Israelis in the Center who aren't liberals or Left like J-Street." Another Kadima MK, Yoel Hasson said, "Not all Israelis want peace. Some don't want it because they know the price that must be paid for peace and they don't want to pay it."
Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst, was blunt: "The Left is toxic in Israel right now. Israelis don't like to think in the long term. This is a problem. They need a leader with a vision." She cited a polling survey to claim that 45% of Israeli Jews self identify as Right, 27% as Center, and 17% as Left. She claimed that those in the Center behave much more like the Left than like the Right when it comes to the solution to the Conflict. She also said that a larger percentage of Kadima supporters than Labor supporters listed peace as their top concern in politics. Here is a link to an article by her on her presentation at the blog 972.
"Among young people the dominant sentiments are nationalism, patriotism, and Zionism," according to Scheindlin. "This is the narrative of resignation." They grew up in the last decade with the failure of Camp David and the Al-Aksa Intifada as well as with two wars. They are volatile and could drift to the Center or even the Left depending upon how events unfold.
Daniel Ben-Simon, a Labor MK, saw the split in Labor as positive. "A month ago Labor moved to the opposition. Before I was between Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home--a right-wing party supported mostly by Russian immigrants) and the most radical members of the Likud. I felt like a hostage! Now Labor is like a family--no quarrels, no factions." I guess he grew up in a small family.
Shai said, "We need Labor on the Left. Otherwise we are not in the Center. We need the Left back and to weaken the Right. We need fifty seats between Kadima, Labor and Meretz so that we can attract the moderate Right into a coalition." Labor now has eight seats and Meretz only three; polls show Labor receiving about the same number of seats in the next election. Kadima has 28 seats and is polling at about 31 seats.
The MK panel of Kadima and Labor MKs thought that any type of boycott of Israeli products was bad, rather it was only of products made by settlers in the West Bank or from Israel proper. "Any boycott of the West Bank is bad because it unites all the settlers," said Yoel Hasson.
The problem is that Hamas wants to delay any solution of the conflict until it is a clear majority among the Palestinians and can negotiate for peace on its terms. It will therefore carry out actions that will help keep the Israeli Right strong during the next election.
Israeli doves are expecting J Street to work as a deus ex machina to deliver Washington to impose a peace agreement on the Israelis and Palestinians. But as former Chief Negotiator for the Middle East Dennis Ross said in a plenary speech, "For peace to succeed the parties have to own it; to own it they have to invest in it." In other words Washington cannot do for Jerusalem and Ramallah what they cannot do for themselves. Ross knows this from personal experience over eight years in the Clinton administration and a career in three previous administrations as well as his present job in this administration.