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Come spring, it’ll be do or die for Israel-Palestine negotiations, says the spokesperson of a major Jewish-American group, and he and his colleagues will try to make sure that peace is finally achieved.
Alan Elsner, the vice president of communications for J Street (which describes itself as “the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”), is optimistic about the prospects for an Israel-Palestine settlement. He is confident that the Obama Administration is going to unveil a detailed peace plan early next year, and then it is up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He must make a decision about whether he wants to make the big leap or whether he wishes to go down in history books as an inconsequential figure who didn't achieve anything,” says Elsner.
This is where J Street comes in. Elsner says the role of the organization, founded in 2008 to counter the rightwing Israeli lobby, is to give a negotiated settlement breathing room in Congress and to forestall a backlash there.
“Our job is to create a political space so that the howls of indignation among a well-organized minority are countered by the voices of the majority,” says Elsner. “To those politicians who will be in favor of peace, we will be telling them, ‘We have your back.’”
Elsner, a veteran journalist who was with Reuters for many years, was in Madison this week to speak at the University of Wisconsin and help set up a campus chapter of his organization. We met over lunch to discuss the work his group is doing.
J Street was founded to reflect the shift in opinion among Jewish Americans, especially members of the younger generation who are “in favor of a two-state solution, opposes settlements, want the occupation to end, and are worried about Israel’s future,” Elsner says. “This was not reflected in the establishment community, which had a conspiracy of silence when it came to critiquing Israel. Anyone who dared express criticism was a traitor to the cause.”
Since its genesis a mere five years ago, J Street has established itself in cities all over the country. It has 180,000 registered supporters, Elsner says, with a base that is comprised of many small donors, instead of a few big ones. It now has the second-largest Jewish-American political action committee. It endorses candidates for Congress, and, Elsner says that seventy of the seventy-one candidates it's endorsed emerged victorious (including Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin). It also has a presence on dozens of campuses, an ongoing endeavor that brought Elsner to Madison.
Elsner claims a number of victories, small and large, for J Street in Washington. Last December, for instance, he says, AIPAC got a stealth resolution introduced in Congress around Christmas time to get the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., expelled. J Street counter mobilized, and the other side had to scuttle the effort.
J Street was the subject of some vilification initially, Elsner says, but has become more accepted as time has goes on. The Israeli government now receives delegations from the group. And the seal of approval from approximately 700 rabbis and other Jewish religious figures who are on the organization’s rabbinic cabinet lends it religious cover.
Elsner does disagree with some dearly held notions of progressives when it comes to Israel.
“BDS doesn’t work,” Elsner says, referring to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign intended to punish Israel for the occupation. “We prefer a negotiated settlement, not coercion. Besides, how much effect will such a campaign have against a rich and powerful economy such as Israel’s?”
Elsner is also skeptical of a one-state solution that would have the Israelis and the Palestinians coexisting in single nation.
“The Israelis don’t want it; the Palestinians don’t want it,” says Elsner “There’ll be a civil war if they’re forced to live together. How has that worked in Syria and Iraq?”
He is not discouraged by the failure so far of negotiations for a two-state solution.
“I’m not naïve, but I do not believe in the inevitability of history,” Elsner says. “The past history of individuals doesn't determine their future course.”
Photo: Flickr user David Berkowitz, creative commons licensed.