Israel’s current situation vis-a-vis the West Bank is untenable, and it’s even worse with Gaza, making movement toward a two-state solution ever more urgent. That was the message Dylan J. Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, delivered in Tucson on Feb. 13 at a luncheon sponsored by Jewish community activist Larry Gellman at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
Introducing Williams, Gellman said that J Street is “committed to Israel, but also with the orientation that the creation of a Palestinian state, a two-state solution, is the only way Israel can survive over the long term as a Jewish democracy.”
Gellman, a longtime supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who now serves on J Street’s National Advisory Committee, said he wants to broaden the conversation about Israel. Often those who criticize J Street — which calls itself “The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans” — have never read anything originating from the organization or attended one of its meetings, he said.
Williams, who was in town to address the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations, told around 50 people at the JCC that there is a “false sense of a sustainable status quo” in the Middle East. “Thankfully,” he said, “2012 was the first year in 40 that there were no Israeli deaths either in the West Bank or due to terror attacks emanating from the West Bank.” While this was due to improved Israeli security measures, including cooperation from U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces, the number of attempted attacks actually went up significantly, he said, making the situation “not sustainable.” In Gaza, he noted, Hamas and other extremist groups continue to provoke a cycle of violence with rocket attacks on Israel.
Williams pointed to additional issues of concern to Israel, including the recent recognition by the United Nations of Palestine as a nonmember observer state. The “scariest” consequence of that, he said, “is that the Palestinians could submit [grievances] to the International Criminal Court,” a scenario in which individual Israelis such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former opposition leader Tzipi Livni “could be facing arrest abroad.”
During this precarious time, “President Obama realizes that a two-state resolution could slip away on his watch,” said Williams. He emphasized that the United States is the only country that has sufficient influence with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to take a leading mediative role in the peace process. “The United States has to lead but can’t act alone,” he said. It needs international support, most likely from the Diplomatic Quartet that includes the United Nations, European Union and Russia, along with the United States.
Referring to a survey of American Jews conducted by J Street in July 2011, Williams noted that 82 percent supported U.S. leadership in a two-state solution, while 79 percent supported Palestinian refugees returning to a newly formed Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders plus mutually agreed land swaps. Sixty-seven percent of American Jews supported an East Jerusalem Palestinian capital. Sixty-nine percent said the United States should be able to publicly disagree with both Israel and the Palestinians to advance peace, which is “exactly the opposite” of the message Congress has been getting from some Jewish organizations. “Our community wants the United States to call out both parties for policies which undermine the prospects for a two-state resolution.”
Will Obama take action toward a two-state solution when he travels to the Middle East later this month? U.S. presidents have typically engaged in peace negotiations at the end of their terms, when it is politically safest to do so, but by then they “don’t have political capital,” said Williams, suggesting that “this is something that President Obama is going to have to get done” before the next mid-term election.
It’s good that neither Obama nor newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry have recently focused on “direct talks,” which is often code that the peace process won’t move forward. “It gives those who oppose the peace process a way to stall,” said Williams, who prefers a shuttle diplomacy approach. He noted that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was accomplished via shuttle diplomacy — the parties did not negotiate directly even though both were at Camp David in 1978.
During a question and answer session, Williams agreed that while the recent Israeli elections show domestic issues are a priority, “that doesn’t mean Israelis are saying now is not the time” for peace. Citing Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, he suggested it would be better for Israel to spend money defending internationally agreed upon borders rather than occupying the West Bank.
“I get up and do this [work] every morning not because of the Palestinians but because it’s a way to save Israel,” Williams said, adding that as a human rights advocate, he sees the chance for Palestinians to achieve some of their own aspirations as “a happy by-product.”