Pro-Israel heavyweights push hard for two states

In a rare and sharp split with Israeli government policy, a group of Jewish community leaders want to get a proposal for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the next president’s desk.

Two complementary U.S. and Israeli working papers to be launched next week propose immediate actions Israel can take to prepare the ground for two states and a longer-term security structure that aims to satisfy Palestinian ambitions for sovereignty and Israeli security needs.

Elements of the proposals, including dismantling some settlements now and preparing for Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, are radical departures from the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government, perhaps the most right wing in Israeli history. Tactically, getting the next president to kick-start new talks is also anathema to Netanyahu, who regards outside pressure as counterproductive.

The organization behind the push, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), is not new to such initiatives. It was established in the early 1990s at the behest of then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who went over the head of what was then a hawkish pro-Israel establishment to seek U.S.-Jewish backing for his peace talks with the Palestinians.

This time, however, the party doing the reaching over is not the Israeli prime minister but Jewish community heavyweights who have helmed major Jewish organizations, from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

In the last 18 months or so, the Israel Policy Forum has signed to its board Alan Solow and Robert Sugarman, past chairmen of the Presidents Conference, the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella group. Sugarman also is a past president of the ADL.

On board, too, are Robert Elman and Robert Goodkind, past presidents of the American Jewish Committee; and Susie Gelman, a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and an early major funder of The Israel Project. Solow, Sugarman and Gelman, with Israel Policy Forum staff, met last week with JTA.

The Israel Policy Forum has never disbanded, but the new heavyweights represent a kind of clout it hasn’t seen in years.

The initiative will formally launch May 31 at a conference in Washington, D.C., showcasing proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from veterans of the Israeli and American diplomatic establishments — represented by Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security, respectively.

Mainstream Jewish groups have long been resistant to openly challenging Israel on security issues. Solow said that was less of a consideration in Israel’s volatile political climate.

“One doesn’t know what Israel’s government is going to look like in a week,” he said.

Solow also noted the stasis after the collapse of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2014 that has driven Democrats to criticize Israel more freely as they see the prospects of two states diminish.

“Taking on the perspective from those in the pro-Israel community, the only reasonable Zionist solution is to have two states for two people,” Solow said.

Both likely presidential nominees, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, have said they would like to address Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Every time a new administration comes into office, these issues get a fresh look, that’s a historical fact,” said Solow, probably the Jewish leader who has been closest to President Barack Obama.

The board members lend the initiative political clout in an election year in which much media attention on pro-Israel voices is focused on Republican mega-donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and hedge funder Paul Singer, who have sharply hawkish outlooks. Adelson, who endorsed Trump this month — reportedly to the tune of $100 million-plus — is often depicted in the media as the bellwether of the “pro-Israel” donor class.

Adelson is close to Netanyahu and has called a Palestinian state a “steppingstone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.” He broke with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2007 when he discovered it was tacitly backing then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s peace initiative.

While Trump says he is eager to see if he can bring about a two-state solution, most of the Republicans he defeated had all but abandoned the idea in the near term — a skepticism that still prevails among congressional Republicans.

David Halperin, the Israel Policy Forum’s director, said he had secured meetings with Republicans to discuss the project, but with more difficulty than he had with Democrats.

“In the current political climate, we would like to make this more bipartisan,” he said.

So is this initiative, at least in part, about making clear that the pro-Israel buck does not start and stop in Adelson’s suite at his Las Vegas Venetian?

“You’re not going to get disagreement from us,” Sugarman said.

Solow said the polling demonstrates that the “overwhelming number of American Jews support the position we’re taking.” The fact that members of the IPF board have held significant leadership roles in American Jewry “will provide additional credibility” to the initiative, he said.

The Israel Policy Forum is planning private and public presentations for Jewish community leaders and members of Congress. The board members will be a key presence.

“We are the connector to the American-Jewish community on all of this,” Gelman said.

Sugarman said the plan for two states would couple with a robust and detailed effort to keep Israel secure, a commonplace posture in Israel — at least on the center and left — he said was missing from the American Jewish conversation. Much of Israel’s right now rejects the two-state solution.

“It’s never been pushed here the way IPF is pushing it,” he said.

AIPAC in principle is in favor of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but the prominent pro-Israel lobbying group would never consider getting ahead of the Israeli government in advancing how to define two states as these plans do. For J Street, the organizing principle is two states, and since its 2008 founding, the more liberal lobbying group has made inroads among Democrats. But its tough criticisms of Israel have alienated the same Jewish institutions that the IPF board members have on their resumes.

The emphasis of the proposals is on preparing Israel psychologically, politically and militarily for two states while countering what the authors of the Israeli plan describe as “fearmongering” from those who oppose Palestinian statehood.

Israel “must seize the initiative to determine its destiny and shape a better future for our and our neighbor’s children,” the 67-page Commanders for Israel’s Security plan says. “There is no exclusively military solution to the conflict or to waves of terror.”

The Israeli team’s proposals include, among other recommendations for immediate action, a settlement freeze, encouraging settlers who live outside the West Bank security fence to move back inside its perimeter, and setting up a precursor for Palestinian sovereignty in predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

The Center for a New American Security proposals to be unveiled May 31 will focus on the long-range security underpinnings of a peace plan.

 “We want to make sure that there are real tangible plans out there, that there are options to deal with security,” said Michael Koplow, policy director for the Israel Policy Forum.

Suckers at the Casbah

Apparently, there are smart people out there who still believe it’s up to Israel to revive the dead Middle East peace process.

Just last week, over 100 prominent American Jews released a letter, sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take “concrete steps” to entice the Palestinians back to the peace table.

Hmm, haven’t we seen this movie a few too many times?

Somehow, I doubt that any of these prominent Jews would negotiate against themselves for years to buy a house from an owner who didn’t want to sell — let alone negotiate.

But what makes their approach especially ill-advised is that in the case of negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace, they mixed up the owner and the buyer.

The party who owns peace is the party who can deliver peace, and that’s Israel. The Palestinian Authority can neither promise nor deliver peace. That’s because they have zero authority over Hamas, the terror entity in Gaza that rules over half of the Palestinian population and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Evidently, that inconvenient detail hasn’t stopped the IPF signatories from urging Israel to “do more” to buy a meeting with the non-owners of peace.

This reflexive focus on Israel is not new — it’s been going on since the Oslo days. Ironically, all it’s done is create an opposite reflex on the Palestinian side — to dig in their heels and increase their animosity.

Emboldened by all the pressure on Israel, the Palestinians pile on new demands, malign the Jewish state at every turn and even threaten to take their “peace partners” to international criminal courts.

The IPF says on its Web site that its goal is to “promote pragmatic strategies for achieving regional peace.” Well, here’s a good topic for their next policy conference: “Is pressuring Israel the most pragmatic strategy for achieving regional peace?”

They might want to invite President Obama to that conference so he can remind them what he said recently in Ramallah: No preconditions should be expected of the Israelis for the Palestinians to return to the peace table.

It took Obama four years to understand that it’s not “pragmatic” to pressure the side that is already willing to sit down and negotiate. But now that there’s renewed pressure on Israel to take “concrete steps,” we’re right back where we started.

The Palestinians, right on cue, have promptly piled on new demands: The release of terrorist prisoners, transfer of parts of Area C in the West Bank to their control, and, get this, a map with final borders — all before any peace talks can maybe resume.

In other words, the more pressure on Israel to make friendly gestures, the more the Palestinians get nasty and raise the ante. Sound familiar?

It’s as if the Palestinians are saying, “Give us everything we ask for, and maybe, maybe, we’ll come talk to you, even though we can’t deliver peace.”

It should be obvious by now that the Palestinians are playing everyone like a fiddle, and the IPF reflex chorus who are urging Israel to make more gestures are playing right into their hands, like suckers at the Casbah. 

In case you were wondering, this is not about getting American Jews to shut up — not even Mashiach can do that. Jews in America have every right to speak up and pressure Israel whenever they feel like it, and many of them do.

But in Judaism, there’s something more important than rights — there’s obligation.

You may believe, in fact, that it’s an obligation for pro-Israel Jews to pressure Israel to take more risks for peace, but if you believe that, then why stop there?

Why is it not an obligation for pro-Israel Jews to lobby for at least equal pressure on the Palestinians who have refused for years to come to the peace table?

Why is it not an obligation for pro-Israel Jews to expose the glorifying of terrorism and Jew-hatred in Palestinian society, the Hamas charter calling for Israel’s destruction and the history of Palestinian rejection to Israeli peace offers?  

And while we’re at it, why is it not an obligation for pro-Israel groups like J Street to lobby against the vicious and libelous global campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state? Isn’t that “pro-Israel” enough?

Where is the letter campaign from those prominent, Israel-loving IPF signatories pressuring the United Nations to stop its blatant discrimination against Israel?

And where is their campaign pressuring Israel’s Arab neighbors to stop the demonizing of Jews and using Israel as a scapegoat for their self-inflicted misery?

For many peace-loving American Jews today, being “pro-Israel” essentially means “pressuring Israel and no one else.”

Beyond the fact that that approach has been a disaster for peace, it’s hardly a secret that Israel is already under enormous pressure from a hostile world. It boggles the mind how smart and savvy pro-Israel Jews can conclude that what Israel and the peace process need more than anything right now is … more pressure on Israel.

Israel doesn’t need to be saved from itself, but from its enemies. Instead of getting more pressure to make peace, Israel needs help exposing the Jew-haters of the world who are the real obstacles to peace.

Just because we have the right to pressure Israel about peace doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Revived Israel Policy Forum aims to rise above partisan fray as a pragmatic pro-Israel voice

When President Bill Clinton chose in January 2001 to unveil his Clinton Parameters for Arab-Israel peacemaking, he chose an Israel Policy Forum gala to do it. Four years later, then-Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought the same audience to announce then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians.

In more recent years, however, the IPF has nearly disappeared in influence and presence. Now it hopes to revive itself with some of Jewish life’s heavy hitters, people who hint they are frustrated with the seemingly partisan politics of J Street and others.

“You could make the case that an organization like IPF is more needed now than ever, promoting a two-state solution without playing politics,” said Aaron David Miller, a former negotiator in the first Bush and Clinton administrations who since his retirement from government in 2001 has been associated with IPF. “You do have increasing polarization in the Jewish community now, and it’s not a good thing.”

Miller is not alone in his assessment.

Among the new significant names signing onto IPF’s revival are Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who just ended his term as president of the Union for Reform Judaism; U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who is retiring and in recent years had public disagreements both with the Israeli establishment and J Street; Deborah Lisptadt, the eminent Holocaust historian; and philanthropist Charles Bronfman.

“I believe that the broad base of the American Jewish community wants and needs realism [that] to my mind, neither the left nor the right are providing,” Bronfman said in an email to JTA. “IPF’s work in all areas will attempt to foster the real probabilities of a two-state solution.”

Next month, the group’s advisers, veteran and recent, will convene in New York to consider the group’s direction. The agenda underscores how tentative the project still is: The second item is titled “What did happen to the IPF?”

Is there room for a Jewish group that pushes the Israeli consensus on peacemaking and keeps above the cacophony of the American partisan fray?

Twenty years ago it was a no-brainer. The IPF was founded at the behest of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was frustrated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s slowness to embrace the nascent Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.

Peter Joseph, IPF’s president now, said he is not alone in seeing the need for nuance in an age when pronounced dissent from some groups characterized debate on the region. Joseph would not be more specific, but he did not deny that this description could apply to J Street, the liberal lobby that bills itself as “the political home for pro-peace, pro-Israel Americans” and which grew by leaps and bounds just as IPF was fading.

A J Street spokeswoman declined to comment on IPF’s resurrection.

But M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s Washington director until 2009 and now the author of an often biting blog with a pronounced leftist slant, said the Middle East policy community may not be as welcoming as it once was.

“J Street will remain the address for people who want to oppose AIPAC,” he said. “All this will do is drain support away from J Street because it won’t drain support from AIPAC.”

Rosenberg stressed that he wished his former employer the best.

Meanwhile, former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block noted how fraught the waters were for IPF’s reemergence. He noted in a statement that Joseph was funding Open Zion, an ideas exchange hosted by Peter Beinart, who has stirred controversy with his writings suggesting that younger American Jews are growing alienated from Israel. Beinart recently proposed boycotting settlement goods while increasing purchases from Israel proper.

Joseph, who is in the private equity business, told Tablet recently that he found Beinart’s boycott call “polarizing” but confirmed to JTA that he continues to fund Open Zion.

“You can’t be effective if your support and your ideas are fringe,” Block said in an email interview with JTA. “It’s not immediately clear what niche IPF will seek to fill. While he has distanced himself from Peter Beinart’s repulsive call for a boycott against Israel, the president of IPF and its key funder is still underwriting Mr. Beinart’s struggling blog, which provides a platform for anti-Israel, one-state crackpots and people who oppose sanctions to stop Iran’s dangerous nuclear pursuit.”

Yet there was cheering from at least one institutional corner.

“We welcome any effort to advance the two-state solution and to secure Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, living in peace and security with its neighbors,” said Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now. “We will be happy to work hand in hand with a reinvigorated IPF.”

IPF’s rise and fall was synonymous with the peace process itself.

Throughout the 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century, IPF occupied a unique Middle East policy nexus: the making and influencing of policy, and the thinking about it. Among those associated with the group at the time were Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser; Stephen P. Cohen, a Yale and Princeton Middle East scholar whose citations by newspaper pundits achieved a notorious ubiquity; and Marvin Lender and Alan Solomont, Democratic Party fundraisers with reputations as kingmakers.

Its Israeli associates had roots in the country’s security establishment, lending heft to its emphasis on negotiations and eventually a two-state solution.

Among Clinton’s last acts as president was to outline the “Clinton parameters,” the peace plan deal rejected by the Palestinians. He chose an IPF gala to make his historical speech.

Yet as attitudes hardened during the second intifada, IPF’s emphasis on interaction seemed less relevant. Still, IPF managed to retain some clout. Its assiduous nonpartisan status attracted attention from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who would invite then-IPF president Seymour Reich to meetings with Jewish leaders when she sought a voice to balance AIPAC’s hawkish line.

IPF’s last major hurrah was its 2005 gala dinner in New York, when Olmert, representing Sharon, signaled a new readiness to talk with the Palestinians. Olmert, in a speech that made headlines, declared that “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies.”

The ensuing efforts to renew peace talks by President George W. Bush and later President Obama never gathered momentum, and the dialogue in the American Middle East peace community—and among American Jews—grew more fractious. There was a dichotomy between those who favored the classic AIPAC strategy of heeding the Israeli government of the day and those such as J Street who favored intensive U.S. involvement.

IPF was not spared the dissension: Rosenberg argued within the organization for a more assertive alignment with J Street, while Joseph insisted on maintaining the nonpartisan middle.

By late 2009, with J Street a frequent interlocutor with the Obama administration, Rosenberg left, and IPF was absorbed into the pro-Obama think tank, the Center for American Progress. The Washington office closed; all that remained was a small four-person operation in New York.

IPF was little heard from until it parted ways with CAP late last year. Joseph said the parting was amicable.

Joseph is in Israel this week at the Israeli Presidential Conference, networking and seeking Israeli interlocutors in the security and political establishments. One likely partnership is with Blue White Future, the new group convened by top former security officials that advocates a degree of unilateral disengagement from the West Bank.

The IPF president added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s broad, new national unity government can provide an impetus toward peacemaking with the Palestinians. The key, he said, is not to impose American ideas but to get a sense of the Israeli reality and encourage the trends within it that seek peace.

“We pay very significant attention to Israel’s security needs,” Joseph said. “Anyone looking at this seriously needs to take that into account.”