As the malaise sinks in following another failed Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, liberal Zionist groups are left with the difficult task of rethinking their stated mission and reshaping their message to American Jews.
Board members and supporters of groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum are questioning whether putting all their energy into Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative was wise. The declared central strategy of the groups — pushing for stronger and more active American engagement in the peace process — now appears to address a situation that no longer exists.
In the wake of the peace talks’ collapse, activists are searching for new ways to reach the goal of a two-state solution to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the conflict with its Palestinian residents at a time when skepticism is running high.
“You cannot sugarcoat the frustrations organizations like ours share,” said David Halperin, executive director of IPF, a group set up following the 1993 Oslo Accords with support from so-called “security doves” in Israel’s security establishment. “It is a time of reassessment for everyone, and we need to reassess where we put out assets.”
Still, while American Jews who support the two-state solution may diverge on the tactics they propose for going forward, all agree on a common enemy: voices calling for giving up on the two-state solution.
The idea of a negotiated peace accord, though — once an obvious path for all involved in the peace process — is becoming increasingly harder to sell. And the various threads of what is known as the peace camp are beginning to fray.
Liberal Israeli columnist Larry Derfner, writing in the online +972 Magazine, voiced this shift dramatically in May, calling on his fellow liberal Zionists to give up the hopes they invest in diplomacy. “Forget it. It’s a waste of time,” Derfner wrote, explaining that electoral politics in Israel and in America will not allow the kind of pressure and sacrifice needed to forge a two-state solution.
“What’s the point of lobbying Congress or trying to move the American Jewish establishment away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats?” he asked.
Instead, Derfner is now calling on fellow liberal Zionists to support boycott, divestment and sanctions actions — or BDS, as they are known — against Israel. For Derfner, the express goal of the pressure tactic would be to achieve a two-state solution. That would mark a new twist for the BDS movement, whose organized supporters today by and large either support a one-state solution incorporating Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, which would have a Palestinian majority, or are silent about the end that they envision.
Derfner, an American immigrant to Israel, believes BDS applied toward a two-state solution will have a “jarring psychological impact” on the Jewish state. “What I know for sure is that a continuation of the genial, toothless, J Street-style approach will continue to change nothing, at least not over here,” he wrote from Israel.
This type of warning is ringing in the ears of leaders of dovish Zionist groups these days as they hold board meetings and special consultations to discuss their next steps. The specter of despair is forcing activists to come up with new ideas to justify their belief that a two-state solution is still feasible.
J Street is in the spotlight more than others, not only because it is the biggest among the dovish advocacy groups, but also because the lobby had pledged, upon its launch six years ago, to create “political space” for President Obama and to serve as his “blocking back” when he takes on the risky effort of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The lobby later took on a more active role in pushing the Obama administration to launch a peace plan.
But as the Kerry initiative expired, it became apparent that what drove talks to a dead end was not Kerry’s lack of commitment, or even domestic opposition to his effort, but the inability of the two adversaries in the region to find any semblance of common ground.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and president, believes that his organization’s work was among the factors that allowed Kerry to move ahead without obstacles from home. “I’d like to take some credit for not having a vocal opposition to the secretary’s efforts,” Ben-Ami said. “There’s a bit of J Street success in that.”
Ben-Ami admits that today “no one is in a good mood,” but he still believes that pressure from organizations such as J Street can jump-start the peace process. Using its political power, J Street is now pushing Obama and Kerry not only to remain engaged, but also to take a step last tried by President Clinton in his final days in office: putting forward an American peace plan framework. “We just have to push and convince and cajole that pulling back prematurely shouldn’t be an option,” Ben-Ami said.
The idea of presenting American peace principles has already been discussed by Kerry and his team. Their conclusion was that the risks in putting forward an American plan — mainly, the chance that it would be rejected by both sides, leaving no space for future negotiations — outweighed the plan’s potential advantages. Still, administration sources have said in the past that they do not rule out this possibility for the future.
Not all agree with J Street’s drive for an American framework. “The idea that the U.S. can simply overcome the deep, entrenched differences is not realistic,” Halperin said. Rather than push ahead, IPF is taking a step back “without allowing frustration dictate the rules of the game.”
Facing a table suddenly swept clean of its main project — the Kerry initiative — pro-peace activists are also demonstrating openness to ideas they’ve rejected in the past. Among these is the unilateral initiative, which is gaining traction in Israel, as well. Ameinu, a progressive Zionist group, will discuss in its upcoming board meeting supporting certain unilateral steps by Israel that could improve the situation on the ground while the organization awaits the resumption of negotiations.
The idea of moving forward unilaterally has charmed many Israelis following the negotiations’ collapse. But while the right wing in Israel has viewed unilateralism as a way to annex a large part of the West Bank and leave the remainder to the Palestinians, centrists see an opportunity to ease life for Palestinians by withdrawing some Israeli troops and lifting roadblocks.
“It’s not optimal, but it is an option we can look at,” Ameinu CEO Gideon Aronoff said. “We’re interested in looking at unilateral ideas that will help set the scene for a peace process.”
Another way of maintaining peace advocacy despite the lack of an active process is by adhering to what some activists refer to as “first, do no harm.” In practice, this effort means making sure there is no escalation on the ground during the period, either due to expansion of Israeli settlements or to a Palestinian appeal for international recognition as a state.
The peace groups also vowed to fight attempts in Congress, already launched by several Republican lawmakers, to cut American foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority or to downgrade the Palestinian mission in Washington. APN, which has the longest track record in advocating for a two-state solution in America, is among those trying to ensure that the region will remain stable while waiting for political change on the ground.
“When there is an active peace process, we do our best to make sure that it is serious, goal-oriented and successful. When there isn’t one, we work to help create the environment for serious peace negotiations,” APN spokesman Ori Nir said.
The group is also advocating for acceptance of a potential Hamas-Fatah Palestinian national unity government that will bring Hamas on board, as long as it accepts the terms set by the international community. This could be the next point of contention between Israel and the Obama administration, and liberal Zionists will be alone in providing political backing for the administration on this issue.
But the key challenge for all pro-peace groups remains keeping their own camp intact, and making sure that donors remain on board despite the drop in enthusiasm. One activist said that there was no decline in donations for his group thus far but noted that changes in giving patterns usually play out over a longer period of time.
Looking back at the second intifada, which brought the Israeli peace camp to its knees, activists fear a drain in support. Some backers may be lost to the right and might give up peace activism altogether, as was the case with many Israelis a decade ago. Others could drift to the left, adopting a one-state solution or focusing pressure on Israel rather than calling for a negotiated solution.
“The work of the peace camp has been made much harder,” concluded Aronoff. But he noted that despite “great distress and dismay” he has not seen activists “turn their back on the peace process.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.