Spencer Ackerman
The Washington Independent
October 27, 2009 - 12:00am

Granting recognition to a new American Jewish lobby group pressing for peace between Israel and the Arab world, ret. Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, said that resolving the 60-year conflict was the crisis that the Obama administration would prioritize if it could “solve any one problem.”

Jones sharpened the Obama administration’s conception of an end-state to the conflict during a keynote address to the first annual conference held by J Street, the year-old “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby,” calling for a “secure, Jewish state of Israel” side by side with a “viable, contiguous state of Palestine” that “ends the occupation began in 1967 and unleashes the full potential of the Palestinian people.” No previous U.S. administration has emphasized the essentially Jewish character of Israel or the need for Palestinian territorial contiguity, both of which speak to deep-seated concerns of both sides in the conflict.

The formulation streamlines one unveiled by Obama at the United Nations General Assembly in September and was one Jones recently used in a keynote address to the American Task Force on Palestine, a Palestinian lobby group also seeking a two-state solution, on Oct. 16. And that reflects an emerging strategy of the Obama administration: to cultivate ties with groups within the American Jewish and Arab-American communities to support a two-state solution, at a time when few believe the prospects for peace look bright, to demonstrate both to a skittish Congress and to the international community that there is a robust American political constituency for ending the conflict. Calling himself “honored” to keynote the first J Street conference, Jones pledged founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton White House staffer, “You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences.”

That strategy has grown controversial, as more conservative elements of the American Jewish community — and even the Israeli government — who view Obama’s quest for peace with skepticism have attacked J Street as inauthentically Jewish and insufficiently pro-Israel in advance of the conference. Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, declined an invitation to attend the conference, saying last week that J Street took positions that “hurt Israeli interests.” Also last week, Lenny Ben-David, a former official at the Israeli embassy in Washington and with the largest Israel lobby group, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, circulated an assault on J Street for accepting money and partnership from Arab-Americans, which he intimated were anti-Israel. And during the same time, Michael Goldfarb, a blogger for the Weekly Standard and a communications director for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, called members of J Street’s honorary congressional “host committee” to accuse the group of insufficient support for Israel, getting 12 out of 160 members of Congress to withdraw their membership.

J Street said it expected the attacks, as it emerged in April 2008 specifically to challenge the more traditional Israel lobby groups — referred by some in the American Jewish peace community as the “status quo lobby” — by providing a more explicitly vocal presence in the American Jewish community for peace. One of J Street’s founders, Daniel Levy, said he believed the presence of Jones and the retention of 148 members of Congress on the host committee show that it has attracted political strength in its year-long existence.

“The smear campaign” represents “business as usual” for many right-wing American Jewish organizations, said Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “It represents a frustration that [J Street] has clearly gained traction, has a following and is going to keep growing. It has legitimacy with Israel, it has legitimacy with the American Jewish community, and it has legitimacy in the corridors of American political power” including with the Obama administration, “with the presence of Gen. Jones.”

The conference, held at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, attracted 1,500 attendees from around the country and Israel. Speakers included current and former members of the Israeli parliament, including former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, Security-Service Chief Ami Ayalon, former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, all members of the peace camp in Israeli politics. J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said the gathering, which began Sunday night and ends Wednesday, “feels very historic” and might be “the largest gathering of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement” in the United States to date.

Jones echoed J Street’s view of Israel’s interest in ending the conflict in his address. “I’m here to tell you, without equivocation, Israel’s security and peace in the Middle East are inseparable,” he said. He called on Israel and the Palestinians to “relaunch negotiations without pre-conditions,” urged Palestinian leaders to “combat incitement” against Israel” and urged Israeli leaders to “stop settlement growth [and] dismantle outposts” for settlement in the West Bank.

On diplomacy with Iran, an urgent concern for many in the American Jewish community, Jones said that in the wake of the revelation of Iran’s undisclosed nuclear facility at Qom, there was an emerging “consensus around the globe moving in our direction” that Iran must reassure the international community that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon or face internationally enforced penalties. “Nothing is off the table,” Jones said.

Another speaker, Robert Wexler, the Florida Democratic congressman who recently announced his resignation to direct a non-governmental organization seeking peace and Palestinian economic development, said it was “logical” that if Obama could make progress on nuclear diplomacy with Iran, a reassured Israeli leadership would “take greater risks for peace” with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Calling it a “great honor” to address the J Street conference, Jones concluded by saying that by securing a lasting peace with the Palestinians — and thereby removing an excuse for radicalization in the region that threatens U.S. interests — “we will strengthen the unshakable bond between the U.S. and Israel that has endured for 60 years.”


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