WASHINGTON — When self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street selected “A Clear Choice for a Better Future” as the theme of its fifth annual conference, organizers hoped that the Israeli election results would have shown a leftward shift. So with the decisive March 17 victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the run-up to the election seemingly pledged to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, the mood at the March 21-24 gathering could easily have slipped into despair.
Instead, the speakers and the 3,000 attendees at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center rallied for renewed hope in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Knesset member Stav Shaffir, of the Labor Party, summed up the mood, saying, “I’ve been here twice before and every time, I grow in hope and encouragement. This time, it seems, I will have to do some encouraging [because] since I arrived in the United States, I’ve heard a frustration that I haven’t heard in the past. Beyond frustration, almost despair. The frustration is natural; this is not the result we had hoped for.
“But despair,” she continued, “this we cannot afford.”
Shaffir admitted that the Israeli left fell short for not giving “Israelis a clear enough picture of what dream we have for a better future,” but she was hopeful for the future and the role American Jewry can play in a two-state solution.
Like Shaffir, left-wing members of the Knesset expressed their frustration with the outcome of the election, taking digs at Netanyahu throughout their addresses. But they saw a silver lining in having a strong left-wing opposition.
Tamar Zandberg, of the Meretz Party, which earned four seats in the Knesset, said in a meeting with the press that in the election last week, votes were not transferred from center-left to the right, as there will be no left-leaning party in the new coalition government.
Netanyahu’s previous government had Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni as justice minister, but now, added Hilik Bar of Labor, the prime minister will not benefit from a “center-left fig leaf.” He predicted that the right-wing government would descend into battle over who, either Netanyahu’s Likud Party or one of several parties further to the right, is the king of the right wing.
For her part, Nabila Espanioly, an activist with the Arab Hadash Party, pledged that the so-called Joint Arab List, a coalition of Arab parties that emerged from the elections as the third-largest power in the Knesset, would continue to work together in the opposition.
Whither the White House?
Of course, the moment conference attendees were waiting for was an address by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who as expected, addressed Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration against a Palestinian state and a comment on Election Day urging Likud voters to come to the polls to counteract the effect of Arabs voting “in droves.”
Though the prime minister walked back his two-state solution statement during an interview late last week, President Barack Obama on Saturday rejected the clarification.
“After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution,” said McDonough, “as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established.
“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made,” he continued, “or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.”
The White House, he said, is reevaluating its policy toward Israel and the Palestinian territories, but he did not further elaborate on that point.
McDonough did underscore the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, specifically through the U.S. backing of the Iron Dome missile defense system and the scheduled delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets to Israel next year.
Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh and a member of J Street’s board of directors, spoke from the main stage during the closing plenary and was one of 19 Pittsburghers to attend the conference.
Also at the closing plenary was chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who participated in a brief panel discussion with Bar and former U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk and moderated by Ethan Bronner, managing editor of international news for Bloomberg.
Erekat, who emphasized that the Palestinian Authority was nearing collapse because of tax revenue being withheld by Israel, earned loud applause.
“I will do everything in my power to maintain the two-state solution,” he said. “Not for Israel, but for my grandchildren.”
Erekat’s appearance at the J Street conference was the reason cited by Hillel International CEO and President Eric Fingerhut as to his withdrawal from the conference, which drew an estimated 1,100 college students. According to J Street U members, in the middle of their student session Sunday night, they received an email from Fingerhut.
“I’m deeply sorry that my decision to not speak there hurt you. I admire your dedication to Israel, to the Jewish people and to Jewish life on campus,” Fingerhut wrote. “Hillel has worked hard and successfully to build inclusive, welcoming Jewish communities on campus that help strengthen Jewish identity and deepen a commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. That this incident has made you doubt that commitment is of great concern to me and only serves to push us to rebuild your trust.”
Fingerhut concluded by inviting the students to speak with him in person, an invitation several hundred students took him up on Monday when they marched from the convention center to Hillel International’s headquarters.
Crowding the sidewalk in front of the Schusterman International Center, the students cheered as Yaakov Malomet, co-president of the J Street U chapter at Brandeis University, declared that Fingerhut’s email missed the point.
“We’re here because we want to work together with Hillel International for a two-state solution and a secure Jewish democratic state,” he said.
Other speakers followed suit, declaring that the conversation with Jewish communal leaders needs to change. They then unveiled a proposed public agenda calling on Hillel to divulge the donors “tying [Hillel’s] hands” and Hillel’s “plan to address that dynamic,” and asking how J Street U can “be partners in this effort?”
Their protest completed, the students left letters asking for an on-the-record meeting between the J Street U National Student Board and Hillel International’s Board of Directors prior to the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. In one last parting shot, the students left sticky-notes on the windows and doors of the Hillel building with the words “Dear Eric Fingerhut you cancelled on [insert student name].”
According to a J Street Twitter post, Fingerhut agreed to the meeting shortly after the march completed.
Melissa Apter writes for the Baltimore Jewish Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.