When a politician attends the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee *, Washington's largest pro-Israel lobbying group, his task is simple: assert his commitment to Israel in the strongest possible terms. At the inaugural conference of J Street, a new organization that pitches itself as a liberal alternative to AIPAC, the job is slightly more complicated: assert a strong and unshakeable commitment to both Israel and peace.
So it went at this year's conference, where Gen. Jim Jones, national security adviser to President Obama, delivered the keynote address Tuesday. For all the controversy the conference prompted—several supporters withdrew, participants were criticized, J Street's mission was questioned—the proceedings Tuesday were notable for their reasonableness. Jones said little Obama hadn't said at the United Nations in September or that Jones himself hadn't said earlier this month to the American Task Force on Palestine. "There will be setbacks, challenges, false starts, and false hopes," Jones told the J Street crowd. "But the people of this region have suffered too long for this problem to be neglected."
Judging from the response, Jones delivered. Peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is not just a priority, he said. It's the top priority: "If there was any one problem I'd tell president he should solve, this would be it." (Presumably, Jones and Obama talk, so it's puzzling why he posed this conversation as a hypothetical.) Jones also tied a commitment to peace in Israel with efforts to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. When it comes to preventing a nuclear armed Iran, he said, "Nothing is off the table."
Still, Jones's mere presence mattered almost more than his words. Only a year after its founding, J Street is no longer the obscure liberal lobby that could. It is an influential—and controversial—spokes-group for Jewish Americans who think the United States' approach to Israel has been too narrow. In its first six months, the group raised $580,000. (AIPAC's annual donations top $50 million.) Conservative members of the Jewish community have eyed the organization with suspicion, arguing that concessions in the name of peace put Israel in danger. Several members of Congress removed their names from the group's host committee in recent weeks. (One hundred forty-eight members remain on the list.) Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, declined an invitation to the conference, saying in a statement that the group took stances that "impair the interests of Israel." The White House's decision to send an emissary was thus considered a minor victory. "You can be sure that this administration will be represented at all other future events," Jones said, to applause.
The approval was mutual. Every president of the last three decades has tried and failed to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But most of the speakers and panelists seemed confident that Obama can fix this thing—if not once and for all, at least for a while. The question is when and how.
The solutions tossed out during a pair of morning panels—"An Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal in 24 Months: How to Get it Done" and "What's Next? Analysis and Advice for the President from Washington Insiders"—fell into two general categories: Creative solutions and force-it-through solutions. The first type presumes that the key to achieving peace is to take an approach that hasn't been done before—or to reframe the problem. The second type suggests that in the past, we haven't tried hard enough: Palestinians and Israelis simply need to suck it up and make concessions.
One proposed solution would work like a divorce proceeding: Put Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a room and say, You two hash it out. If they can't figure out a workable agreement in, say, four months, the United States would present them with its own plan. The theory behind this approach, says Gadi Batilansky, former spokesman for Ehud Barak, is that Israelis and Palestinians might not listen to each other, but they would certainly listen to President and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama. This proposal falls squarely into the "suck it up" category.
Another strategy would be to pitch peace in Israel not as a foreign policy issue but as a U.S. national-security issue. President Obama should approach peace as President Bush would approach a war. Or, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now puts it, as a "peace of necessity." Obama wouldn't look to poll numbers in Israel (which are currently in the single digits). Nor would he wait for the proper "conditions on the ground"—strong Palestinian leadership, a freeze on Israeli settlements, etc. It may sound like an oxymoron, but Obama would be an aggressive peacemaker. "I don't care if people are singing kumbaya together," says Friedman. "The goal is to not be fighting."
A third way to refresh the debate would be to inject new variables. That way, the two sides wouldn't feel as if they were rehashing the same old terms of 2000 and 1993. Propose that some settlements could exist in a sovereign Palestinian state. Arrange creative land swaps. Require that leaders from both sides recognize historical wrongs along the way. The goal, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, would be to rejigger the puzzle pieces. Consider the politics, too: Israeli politicians will never want to make concessions where their predecessors would not, since it makes them look weak. Better to give them a new—or new-looking—set of elements to discuss.
As for the time frame, the answer seemed to be: soon. Jones said that "time is not necessarily on our side," which suggests urgency. Daniel Levy, a J Street co-founder, admitted that "I don't know if it can be done in 24 months," but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Obama's legislative platter is keeping him busy back home. But the speed of Iran's uranium enrichment—some reports say it could be capable of producing nuclear weapons in 2010—means peace in Israel could soon get a lot more complicated.
Perhaps the best idea came inadvertently from panel moderator M.J. Rosenberg, when announcing a location switch. "The event 'Palestinian Perspectives' is moving to the main bedroom," he said, before quickly correcting himself: "Ballroom." The audience laughed. "That would solve all our problems!"