J Street president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, speaks at Temple Israel of Boston
Speaking at Temple Israel of Boston on a rainy evening to an enthusiastic crowd of about 450 who gave him a standing ovation, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami stressed that just as a third-party mediator is necessary for settling the terms of a domestic divorce, strong leadership by the president of the United States is needed to bring about a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Calling the state of Israel "a wonderful modern miracle," Ben-Ami addressed the deep concerns held by many about Israel's prospects for lasting peace with its neighbors. The event was part of Temple Israel's "Learn, Debate, Engage" series.
J Street, the organization he founded, advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has 180,000 supporters nationwide. Over 11,000 of those supporters are in the Boston area.
Rabbi Jeremy Morrison welcomed the audience to listen to the speech on the need for U.S. leadership "with the intention of learning and with a commitment of civility." Howard Wishnie, a member of Temple Israel's adult education committee, introduced the speaker and reminded the audience that hearing other points of view helps people "avoid becoming locked into our own narrow perspectives."
Ben-Ami spoke warmly of his "deep roots" in Israel. His great-grandparents were among the first settlers, well over a century ago, in the land that would become the state of Israel. His grandparents and parents also played significant roles in Israel's history.
Acknowledging the demographic reality that Palestinians will soon become a majority in the land controlled by Israel, Ben-Ami observed that Israel needs to embrace a coherent identity as a Jewish democracy. To simultaneously retain its Jewish character and democratic values, it must continue to have a majority Jewish population. Israel should therefore be willing to give up some land where the Palestinians currently live, creating a Palestinian state by mutual agreement.
"Israel's very survival depends on that [Palestinian] state's creation," Ben-Ami said. He indicated that the parameters are well-known, as they have been spelled out in previous draft proposals by various international teams of negotiators and by experts such as those published in Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer's recent anthology Pathways to Peace.
While some right-wing Israelis, if they support a two-state solution at all, envision a future for the Palestinians that Ben-Ami characterized as a collection of enclaves with "diminished rights," he said he hoped that most Jews would support a more sustainable, ethical approach.
This is a difficult time for peace initiatives in Israel. Neighboring countries are either menacing or unstable. Furthermore, although a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, the current electoral system pushes Israeli politicians rightward, so that "more radical forces…are taking center stage."
Without action, Ben-Ami warned, the situation could worsen. Last month, by near-unanimous vote, the UN upgraded the Palestinians' status to that of an "observer" state. In the future, he speculated, the Palestinian Authority could make new requests for increased recognition; it could reconcile with Hamas; or it could disband and cede the Palestinian territories to Israel, thereby making a strong case for granting Palestinians the right to vote, which would radically change Israel's makeup as a majority Jewish democracy. With no progress toward a solution, the territories would be prime for an explosive expression of frustration.
Ben-Ami argued that President Obama should "act now to head off this conflagration" in the Middle East. There are ways forward. Endorsing a strategy proposed by Alan Dershowitz, he suggested that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could drop his precondition of a settlement freeze in exchange for his willingness to negotiate; the Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, could then freeze settlements as a gesture of goodwill as soon as negotiations start; and President Obama's administration could serve as mediator.
In summary, he said the US should seek to "advance" the moderate Palestinian leadership that has committed to nonviolent strategies, rather than to "punish" them by cutting aid. The answer," Ben-Ami said, "isn't to give up."
J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans to advocate for vigorous U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to broaden debate around Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community. For more information, visit the J Street national or local websites (www.jstreet.org/, www.jstreet.org/boston) or contact J Street Boston (firstname.lastname@example.org, 617-401-5553).