Categorized | Middle East

J Street chief detects new energy in Mideast peace process

By Jeremy Ben Ami

Jeremy Ben-Ami

Jeremy Ben-Ami

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of State John Kerry is back in the Middle East this week for his fourth visit in three months.

And J Street’s Leadership is back in the United States after a 9-day, 8-night mission to Israel and the Palestinian territory.

We met Israeli and Palestinian political and business leaders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on both sides of the Green Line. Highlights included meetings with Israel’s President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and a visit to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, currently under construction.

Such a lengthy trip cannot be adequately summarized in a short column, so I’ll limit myself to four thoughts:

After more than 18 months of near-total diplomatic stagnation, there is wind in the sails of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy again. The topic – absent from Israel’s electoral agenda four months ago – is back in Israel’s headlines.

We’ve seen Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaking out on peace in recent media interviews – at times in contradictory ways – and we’ve seen public debates on these issues for the first time in years.

A new caucus supporting the two-state solution has been launched in the Knesset, Opposition Leader Shelly Yachimovich has visited Ramallah, and a senior Shas MK has publicly encouraged the Prime Minister to respond favorably to the Arab Peace Initiative.

On and off the record, Israelis and Palestinians are floating ideas and airing objections and concerns. We see this as a clear recognition that the players – on all sides – recognize the seriousness of the Kerry’s intentions.

Rather than react to each comment and rumor, J Street intends to “keep our eyes on the prize” – building support for the secretary as he charts a course through turbulent waters to achieve a two-state solution. J Street will do everything we can to assist him in this critical effort.

Despite Kerry’s high energy and ambitions, skepticism abounds on both sides. There is little belief in American leadership and real disappointment in this administration’s efforts to date, especially given the high hopes at President Obama’s inauguration.

For Palestinians, the presumption is that the Israelis will stonewall any new effort and that the Americans will either give up or give in. For Israelis, there is doubt that there is a credible partner on the other side capable of delivering meaningful peace.

Particularly among Palestinian activists, there is ever-greater focus on non-violent resistance and on a rights-based approach to ending occupation that leads to the International Criminal Court and one-person/one-vote advocacy.

Support for the two-state solution is not necessarily fading, only the belief that the other side is interested in it.

Israeli politics have shifted notably post-election. The right wing of the political spectrum is harder line. The Likud, though smaller, is dominated by farther-right pro-settler voices, and the settler party, HaBayit HaYehudi is larger and stronger under the leadership of Naftali Bennett.

But the total number of seats controlled in the Knesset by pro-settler forces has declined about 10 percent and represents roughly one-third of the parliament. The pendulum started swinging back to the political center in this election and Netanyahu’s’s political stock is certainly down.

There is a clear majority in the new Knesset for a two-state solution and against the anti-democratic legislation introduced last Knesset by the right wing. The central player in the new Knesset is of course Lapid. There is a lot of speculation regarding his views on peace issues, and despite the mixed signals in recent interviews, we found meaningful and informed support for the two-state solution within his Knesset faction.

Perhaps our most interesting political meeting was with a Shas MK who spoke emotionally and forcefully of the need for peace and two states. The Shas party has been more vocal recently on peace issues and could be an important ally in building a pro-two states coalition in Israel.

Finally, the Netanyahu government allowed ministers and senior political figures to meet with J Street on this trip, including Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin (the highest-ranking government officials at the ministry) and Minister Yuval Steinitz.

The government put out the word to journalists following these meetings that “Israel is moving closer to J Street” in recognition “that J Street has become a major player in the US political arena which can no longer be ignored.”

Our trip confirmed that Kerry has re-injected energy into peace efforts and that the coming months will put to the test J Street’s core hypothesis that vigorous American engagement and leadership could be the key factor in bringing about an end to this most difficult conflict.

Ben Ami is executive director of J Street

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