Where others are worrying about a rift between the United States and Israel, Ori Nir and Hussein Ibish see cause for hope, and both men stress that Americans must pressure their leaders to make the most of new circumstances.
The left-leaning activists, appearing at a panel on the Middle East in Maplewood, welcomed the Obama administration’s tough talk with Israel as perhaps a sign of real engagement on concrete issues.
“This might be a turning point,” said Nir, the Washington spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “Finally there is hope that the U.S. has found its mojo again.” If the American government is putting pressure on Israel, he said, that is because all sides recognize that Israel is the key player in the peace process.
Nir and Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, spoke at a public forum on March 24 sponsored by South Mountain Peace Action, an independent organization based in Maplewood and South Orange.
The event, titled “Israeli-Palestine Peace: The Obama-Clinton Program for a Two-State Solution and How We Can Support It,” was held at the Maplewood Memorial Library. About 130 people attended.
The Central New Jersey representative of J Street, Debbie Schlossberg, also spoke, briefly outlining the group’s role as a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” organization. All three speakers support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, unlike many of the largest pro-Israel groups, an assertive U.S. role in pressuring both sides to negotiate.
Nir, an Israeli who used to be a reporter for Ha’aretz and for The Jewish Daily Forward, said he had recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Israel.
“It was tough,” he said. “The general mood was grim, and so was the situation on the ground. Many people have given up. Positions are much further apart, and there are weak leaders on both sides. There is a lot of scar tissue.”
But despite that, he said, and the fact that “the Obama administration has made quite a few mistakes,” he saw hopeful signs.
Among Israelis and among Palestinians, solid majorities — between 65 and 75 percent — support the idea of a two-state solution. “The downside,” Nir added, “is that the same two-thirds don’t see any chance that it will be applied.”
The ‘real partners’
Despite their apparent apathy these days, he said, Israelis “recognize that the status quo is untenable. There is momentum growing behind the understanding that Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic if it holds onto the West Bank, and that urgent action is needed to halt the process that has Israel turning into something it doesn’t want to be.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dealing with a fractious, right-leaning coalition, might not have decided yet on his course of action, but he has a real opportunity to make progress, Nir said. Despite skepticism about Palestinian leadership, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are the “real partners” Israel has been seeking, he said.
Americans need to pressure their leaders to support the White House efforts, Nir said. “The administration needs all the help it can get to make a decisive push to peace.”
Ibish, who used to be the communications director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, wholeheartedly endorsed that view. He said that his organization has been dedicated to advocating for a two-state solution, because Israeli and Palestinian coexistence is very much in the American national interest.
Like Nir, he welcomed the Obama administration’s recent actions in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “After a year of false starts and setbacks, they haven’t given up,” he said. “They haven’t thrown up their hands and walked away. They have come to the logical conclusion that they need all four or eight years” to achieve a peaceful settlement.
What is needed now are reciprocal gestures of good will from both sides, Ibish said — to empower the leaders to unite their own people behind them. He said that while the Hamas administration in Gaza is beyond hope, and Fatah in the West Bank is regarded as corrupt and ineffectual, Abbas and Fayyad have managed to generate a new hope.
That upturn in the past year, he said, has come from a changed approach: Instead of passively blaming the Israeli occupation for their failures, in certain areas, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank are taking a unilateral approach to statehood. They are working to create a security apparatus and administration, and there has been visible progress, he said.
Ibish and Nir said their organizations have cooperated on a number of projects. Aside from one sharp interchange between a woman who talked about the “apartheid” treatment of Palestinians and a man who objected to that term — which Ibish also rejected — the tenor of the forum was upbeat. Though people questioned the optimism of the speakers, it was clear that they welcomed it.