Archive for February, 2011


J Street’s second national conference kicked off tonight with a very large crowd of over 2,000. Of significant note was the presence of almost 500 students from the relatively new J Street U.

I came in concerned about the atmosphere at this conference. In 2009, at the first J Street national conference, there was a good deal of hope. Israel was facing great international pressure due to the onslaught on Gaza earlier in the year; President Obama had made it clear that he opposed Israeli settlements in a more substantive way than his predecessors; and that there was a real sense of urgency toward a two-state solution.

Now, the two-state solution seems to have been killed by Israel, Obama has shown that he will not get into fights about his Mideast policies and there is a general feeling of hopelessness about any diplomatic process. So what would this mean for J Street in 2011?

It seems like someone at J Street considered just that question. The decision to have Peter Beinart speak at their opening plenary was a no-brainer. But bringing Sarah Benninga and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was unexpected and turned out to be a very powerful way to begin the conference. (more…)

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J Street Conference


Just a note to my readers that I will be blogging from the J Street conference for the next few days. I plan to let you all know what happens there and what it all seems like to me, the atmosphere and the events themselves. I’m given to understand that attendance will be considerably higher than the first conference, but I will be curious to see what the attitude of those attendees is.

The program really has a lot more scope than the first conference, with speakers ranging farther into the left, but also featuring many more MKs and a live address by Dennis Ross. That’s a pretty big spectrum. And, unlike the first conference, this one will take place in an atmosphere of deep disappointment with Barack Obama, with no peace process extant and with mounting evidence that the two-state solution is a dead dream.

So follow me here, and also om Twitter, @MitchellPlit if you can’t make the conference yourself.

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American leaders continue to demonstrate that changes in the rest of the world, and the deep flaws in our foreign policy which they reveal, will have no impact on our thinking whatsoever. The latest case in point is the position staked out by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) with regard to Lebanon.

Remember Lebanon? Subsequent events have pushed Lebanon out of the news in the United States and even, to a lesser extent, in Israel, which has more reason to be concerned with what goes on there. But the collapse of Lebanon’s government at the beginning of this year remains at issue, and, with all the consternation these days

Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain

about where a post-Mubarak Egypt will end up, Lebanon has at least as much potential for both international intrigue and internal strife as any country in the Middle East.

Lebanon’s political situation is always precarious; it’s only a matter of degree. But with a caretaker government currently in power and the still-looming announcement of indictments by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Lebanon is a powder keg. And it’s not happening in a vacuum.

The two competing coalitions are each in the favor of a different array of outside actors. The March 8 Alliance, which currently holds 70 of the 128 seats in Parliament, includes Hezbollah and is sympathetic to Syria and Iran. The March 14 Alliance features former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and enjoys much stronger relationships with France, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The STL was set up to investigate the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, a widely respected leader who was also opposed to the Syrian presence in his country.

Not surprisingly, the STL was, at first, expected to point the accusing finger at Syria. Now, the talk is centered on Hezbollah. The arrest and imprisonment for four years without charge of four pro-Syrian generals who were later freed for lack of evidence greatly increased the politicization of the STL, and this continued as Hezbollah went on a rhetorical offensive about it, including accusing Israel of Hariri’s murder.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s speculations about Israeli responsibility have only minimal evidentiary support, but they are not impossible either. But they served their purpose in further undermining the STL’s credibility.

Hezbollah and Syria both had motive to kill Hariri, and if both or either were involved, they would have every reason to do anything they can to discredit the STL. But the fact that supposedly key testimony has been retracted and that many accusations of false testimony have been leveled; that the direction of accusations was leaked to the public at such an early stage; that four Lebanese generals were jailed for four years without trial or charge and then freed for lack of evidence; that Hariri has publicly retracted his accusations against Syria for the killing of his father; and the campaign against it by Hezbollah and Syria, including the theory of Israeli involvement have all combined to cast the legitimacy into doubt should be giving us serious pause. It isn’t, apparently. (more…)

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See Part I here

Last week, I detailed part of the price the US is likely to pay for this veto, the first one in over four years (seven Mideast resolutions have passed in that time). But there will surely be more.

There are two main factors that compound the effect this veto has: the rhetoric of the current President of the United States and this particular moment in history.

Americans are not going to remember this veto for very long; we rarely do. But the fishbowl Americans live in is transparent, and others, who do not have the luxury of

Mahmoud Abbas has what is likely his last chance to lead Palestinians toward progress

being able to treat international relations so lightly, have much better memories.

People still recall President Obama’s eloquent speech in Cairo in 2009. And they’ve long since realized that he is never going to live up to the pretty words. Obama expresses very noble ideals, but he is not a fighter for those ideals. He seeks at all times to avoid confrontations, whether with Republicans, members of his own party in Congress or in the international arena.

But in this case, all Obama needed to do was to stand aside on a resolution that reflects official US policy. Yes, people in the Arab world, as well as Israeli peace activists, realize that would have been a political headache. But it’s a little hard for them to muster sympathy right now for the American president.

Obama has done a shameful job of responding to the ongoing tidal wave of revolution in the Arab world. While people risk life and limb to rid themselves of dictators, some of them long-time clients of the USA, the US’ only response has been for everyone to show “restraint.” The only harsh statement was aimed at Iran, reflecting not a response to the battles for freedom, but a cynical political opportunism that completely smothers any hint of principle.

Amidst all of that, the US had a golden opportunity to reshape our badly tarnished image. Just an abstention on the UNSC resolution, just that small gesture in the one part of the Middle East where the US could, potentially, wield by far the most influence to free people from a regime which does not respect their human, much less civil rights, would have made up for quite a bit of American failure. (more…)

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The much anticipated United States veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements came about on Friday. It surprised no one, but, as I wrote last week, the repercussions of this veto are going to be much deeper than the numerous previous vetoes.

The US has vetoed a great many UNSC resolutions that dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though there have also been many, even in recent years, which the US did

Susan Rice and Barack Obama saw AIPAC coming and got the message from Congress loud and clear

not veto. But this time the resolution was not only perfectly in line with official US policy, but it dealt with an issue the current administration had confronted head-on but had failed to affect in any measurable way.

Susan Rice’s statement of explanation about the US veto is an absolute mess of double-talk and distortions. This really isn’t surprising; there is little doubt that the White House and State Department made the veto decision based not on a sober analysis of what is best for Israel or the Palestinians or for US interests in the Middle East.

No, this decision was made because of the massive congressional pressure that was brought to bear on this question. And, in turn, that congressional pressure came at the behest of AIPAC. That’s why the explanation sounds so thin, why it is based on tired clichés that we’ve heard for years and have long since been exposed as threadbare. And I say this as one who is not a subscriber to the Israel Lobby theory, who has, in fact, written extensively to the contrary. But in those writings, I never tried to deny that the Lobby has enormous power in Congress, and this is a case where that is very effective.

Let’s consider Rice’s explanation before we look at the ramifications of this decision, which I will do in part II of this piece. Rice said:

Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.

The proposed UNSC resolution would have reaffirmed that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal. Indeed, this is the US’ official policy, as affirmed in an April 21, 1978 State Department legal opinion, which has never been revised or reversed: “While Israel may undertake, in the occupied territories, actions necessary to meet its military needs and to provide for orderly government during the occupation, for the reasons indicated above the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.”(my emphasis added) Reading more excerpts from this opinion is well worth your while. (more…)

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The Obama Administration has tried to distinguish itself from its predecessor by seeking to work with the international community rather than outside of it. The problem it encounters, though, is that when it comes to Israel, the international community pulls in one direction and Congress, under pressure from pro-Israel PACs, pulls in the other.

So, in the matter of the upcoming UNSC resolution condemning Israeli settlements, the Obama administration will veto the resolution, but would very much prefer it doesn’t come to that. So, they’re making an offer to the Palestinians (at whose behest the resolution was brought and who, if they gavce the word, can easily have it withdrawn).

The offer was reported in Foreign Policy tonight: “Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, outlined the new U.S. offer in a closed door meeting on Tuesday with the Arab Group, a bloc of Arab countries from North Africa and the Middle East. In exchange for scuttling the Palestinian resolution, the United States would support the council statement, consider supporting a U.N. Security Council visit to the Middle East, the first since 1979, and commit to supporting strong language criticizing Israel’s settlement policies in a future statement by the Middle East Quartet.”

The offer as presented is rather vague. The US would “consider” supporting a UNSC visit to the Mideast (which would be symbolic and accomplish nothing) and would commit to “strong language” from the Quartet on settlements, which could mean anything. (more…)

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Just in case you thought that it was only Palestinians under occupation, or Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, or even Palestinian citizens of Israel who are feeling the brunt of Israel’s boot, in comes a Knesset bill that would make it a crime for any Israeli to advocate boycotts against Israel. Bear in mind that, legally, the settlements would be considered “Israel” for these purposes. The bill just passed its first reading.

That means it still has a long way to go before it becomes law, and I tend to agree with a number of analysts and colleagues who have said that the bill will probably eventually become law but in a considerably watered-down form. Still, in any form, this is obviously an attack on free speech and active dissent in Israel.

Lest you think that this bill is a product of an extreme wing of Israel’s political spectrum, of the three Knesset members who initiated the bill, two are from the two biggest parties in the country, Likud and Kadima. Those two parties occupy nearly half of the Knesset seats (55 out of 120). So this is not a product of the margins.

I hasten to add that there is also opposition to this bill in both parties, particularly Kadima. Still, just the fact that such a bill comes up speaks volumes. I’ll also add, in case I need to, that this cannot compare, of course, to the treatment of Palestinians, including citizens of Israel. But this attack on free speech is all of a piece with the state violence and all part of the degradation of Israel that is part and parcel of its occupation, its racism and its policies.

Click here to read the report on this bill from the Alternative Information Center in Israel.

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