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Paranoia and gloom enshrouded J Street’s 2012 conference, as speaker after speaker warned supporters of the dovish “pro-Israel, pro-peace” movement that the Jewish state is on the brink of collapse, a prognosis that experts rejected as misleading.
“Yes, there is much cause for despair,” J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told attendees on the confab’s opening night. “There is no viable peace process to speak of, the present Israeli leader pays lip service to a two-state solution, yet its actions undermine the chance for lasting peace.”
“I know how many of you here and those who chose to stay home are distraught about the present situation” in Israel, Ben-Ami continued, chastising the Jewish state for a range of offenses.
“Within Israel, democratic rights are being challenged: The status of women is under attack, the control of the religious right seems to grow by the week,” and the construction of Jewish homes in Jerusalem continues undeterred, Ben-Ami complained to a crowd of nearly 2,500. “All of this is enough to make someone give up and go home.”
Ben-Ami—like many speakers at the conference—offered a simple remedy.
“Give up the land,” Ben-Ami said, “necessary for a Palestinian state and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy, or keep all the land and sacrifice either the Jewish or democratic nature of the Jewish state.”
Even liberal observers of Ben-Ami’s address did not seem convinced.
“Applause for Jeremy Ben-Ami less than overwhelming,” Mitchell Plitnick, a former official of B’tselem, a far-left Israeli human rights group, observed after Ben-Ami’s speech. “His speech urged retreat from apathy. Didn't seem to work.”
Other foreign policy experts explained that Ben-Ami’s portrait of Israel is misleading.
“The gloom and doom is absurd,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior National Security Council adviser to former President George W. Bush. “As to internal matters in Israel, we’ve heard all that before: a couple of decades ago people said the Sephardi-Ashkenazi splits would deepen and threaten national unity.”
“If democracy is eroding, how is it that their Supreme Court is as powerful as ever and they have higher participation rates in national elections than we do, by a significant margin?” Abrams asked. “J Street’s real problem is that Israel is thriving under [conservative] Likud leadership and it drives them crazy. The fact is that Israelis reject the J Street approach. That Netanyahu seems almost certain to win another term as prime minister leads them to question where Israel is heading instead of wondering why their own views are so out of step with Israeli reality.”
Though multiple J Street speakers blamed Israel for failing to achieve peace, Palestinian incitement and violence received little mention.
Speakers at the J Street conference, however, often hit a panicked note.
“Israel today is the most unequal society in the western world with the exception of you,” said Avishay Braverman, a liberal member of the Israeli Knesset. “It’s clear today that we have to partition the Holy Land as soon as possible.”
Israeli lawmaker Zehava Galon, chair of the country’s far-left Meretz Party, claimed that an “anti-democratic campaign is presently taking place in Israel.”
“It is the occupation that undermines Israeli democracy,” said Galon, claiming that Israel’s supposed “occupation” has promoted “racism” and hurt the Jewish state’s economy.
Despite a worldwide economic recession, Israel’s economy continues to grow.
An Arab-Israeli lawmaker chided Israeli settlements, referring to them the major “obstacle to peace.”
“The current coalition of Prime Minister Netananayahu cannot have real negotiations,” said Knesset-member Raleb Majadele. “Only a differing government, based on a differing coalition that is committed to peace, can restart the process and move forward.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized his willingness to unconditionally negotiate with the Palestinians.
Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist and one of J Street’s headline attractions, took a shot at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which held its annual pro-Israel conference earlier this month, attracting more than 13,000 attendees, including President Obama.
J Street’s conference, held at the Washington D.C. Convention Center, shared space with the Photoshop World Conference and Expo.
“Let us all be united,” Oz said. “But why unite under the hawkish military, extremist banner of AIPAC?”
The notion that the state of Israel is in jeopardy and that only J Street supporters can save it continued into Sunday, when a panel of Democratic political operatives tried to explain why Obama is perceived as being unfairly hostile to Israel.
“Obama has been damaged on Israel, but people can’t tell you why,” noted Ilyse Hogue, a writer for the Nation magazine and former top official at MoveOn.org. “They can tell you they don’t trust him on Israel.”
Ilyse noted that concern about the issue of Israel can dampen enthusiasm for the president. “Those are the kinds of activities [canvassing and getting out the vote] that can swing elections,” Hogue said. She added that “yes, it’s a concern, and I don’t have the answer for what to do” about it, except "arm those folks with accurate information so that they know how to answer these questions."
J Street activists also seemed worried about the president’s perceived record on Israel.
“A lot of [conservatives] talk about Obama’s stance on Israel and criticize his stance on the Middle East,” noted one J Street attendee during a panel discussion on Israel’s prominence in the presidential election cycle. “It definitely seems like it’s on a lot of people’s minds and how they view his presidency.”
Another J Street delegate who identified himself as an Obama campaign organizer said he expects Jews to “vote with their noses closed” for Obama.
Center for American Progress senior fellow Eric Alterman said that J Street is far from rivaling the power of AIPAC.
“J Street does great work in the same way that the Nation [magazine] occasionally does great work,” Alterman said. “It’s silly to say JPAC [J Street’s political arm] is in any way comparable to the power AIPAC has.”