Word on the Street: Our current crisis and Israel as a “Jewish state”

March 21, 2014

This morning, Jeremy Ben-Ami sent the letter below to J Street supporters.

Since Secretary of State John Kerry started the nine-month clock on efforts to reach a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we’ve known there would be crises along the way.

With eight of those nine months already past, we are at precisely such a crunch point that is testing the two major players – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.

To keep moving forward, both men now need to give a little, while keeping their eyes on the prize and recognizing that the benefits of resolving the conflict outweigh any short-term political considerations and that the penalties for failure for both peoples are immense.

What has brought us to this moment?

The immediate issue in the coming week is Israel’s commitment under the terms for resuming talks to release a final group of 26 long-term prisoners on March 29. Israel is apparently now saying that each release was contingent on progress in the talks and it will not go through with the latest release unless the Palestinians agree to a framework for further negotiation incorporating as a “Jewish state.”

Palestinians say they have already recognized the state of Israel and are prepared to do so again in an agreement. They feel that defining the character of the state of Israel is up to Israelis not them.

They’ve further stated that recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” implies acceptance of the Israeli narrative of the conflict and appears to downgrade both the real suffering and the future rights of the Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 and their descendants. It also, on the face of it, diminishes the status of the 20 percent of Israel’s population which is not Jewish.

J Street agrees that a final, comprehensive agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to address core issues of identity, recognition, rights and redress.

However, we also believe that failure to resolve these issues at this point should not derail these negotiations. These issues are appropriately settled as part of a final peace agreement – and not now as part of a framework for continued negotiations.

The Secretary of State has also cautioned Israelis against turning the “Jewish state issue” into “the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace.”

Resolving the conflict requires mutual recognition by Israel and a new state of Palestine of each other as the national homeland of their respective people. In a final agreement, both states should agree to treat all their citizens equally without regard for religion, race or background and reach an agreed-upon resolution of all outstanding claims.

Once the parties have settled borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees, mutual recognition can be part of a package deal. But it is simply unrealistic and unreasonable to expect any Palestinian leader to consent to what has become for all intents and purposes an Israeli ultimatum right now.

If Netanyahu walks away over this issue, he may win some propaganda points but he would be throwing away for the Jewish people our best chance to end the conflict in years. With goodwill and creativity, the parties can surely surmount this obstacle and move on.

What Happens Next?

J Street has put the full weight of the movement we’ve built behind the Kerry effort. Obviously we dearly hope he will succeed – but we disagree with those who say this may be the last chance to make peace between the peoples. This may be the best chance but the fact remains that the two-state solution is the only workable solution that anyone has put forward to this generations-long conflict.

So no matter what happens in the coming six to eight weeks, J Street will continue to speak out and to advocate for a solution to this conflict that we see as in line with the best interests of the state of Israel and the United States as well as in accord with the values and principles of the Jewish people.

That voice is stronger today than it has ever been in American politics and in the Jewish communal conversation. We will keep pressing our case and growing our support because we know that ultimately our approach is most in line with the interests and values of the majority of our community.

With our eyes clearly fixed on our goal of security, peace and justice for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, we will continue to push toward the essential goal of our work: two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.