Just back from meetings with Palestinian officials in the West Bank, the leadership of J Street began lobbying the Netanyahu and Obama administrations to “put a realistic deal on the table” that will end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“A deal needs to be done based on the 1967 borders with an adjustment for the main settlement blocs,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, which defines itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace. “If [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] doesn’t offer a deal, then we are asking [President Barack Obama] to present one.”
“If both the Israelis and Palestinians are serious about a two-state solution, let’s test them out,” he said. “Our view — and one that many Israelis are beginning to say — is that this is a fundamental Israeli interest and that the State of Israel and the Jewish people should not wait for the United Nations to act in September.”
The Palestinians in September plan to ask the UN General Assembly to endorse a Palestinian state without first working out its borders with Israel.
In the J Street delegation’s meeting Sunday in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Ben-Ami said Abbas promised to delay the UN vote if “a credible diplomatic initiative was underway” between the Palestinians and Israelis and if Israel promised a two- or three-month suspension of all settlement expansion.
Israel had a self-imposed 10-month building freeze that expired in September, and since then the Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table unless there is another freeze.
Abbas’ suggestion of another building freeze was ruled out Tuesday by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was quoted as saying: “There will be no building freeze in Jerusalem or in the West Bank, not for three months, not for three days, not even for three hours.”
Ben-Ami said he believes Israel made a mistake when it delayed last week the transfer of nearly $90 million in Palestinian taxes it had collected on behalf of the PA over the last several months.
Israel’s move came just hours after the two rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the PA, signed a reconciliation agreement that calls for the creation of an interim government of technocrats until parliamentary and presidential elections within a year.
Israel promised to lift the suspension once it could be assured none of the tax money would be given to Hamas, whose leaders continue vowing to destroy Israel despite the reconciliation agreement.
Israel’s move means employees of the PA — which is running a monthly deficit of $30 million — will not be paid on time, according to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This comes despite a cash advance of $121.9 million Friday by the European Union, and a special grant of $14.3 million Monday from France.
The U.S. State Department called Israel’s action “premature” and said the Obama administration is taking a “wait and see” approach to the reconciliation.
“We are looking to see what this reconciliation agreement looks like in practical terms, before we make any decisions about future assistance,” said State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner.
But members of Congress are already weighing in on the Palestinian unity agreement. Some 29 Democratic senators wrote to Obama saying “the decision of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas — a designated terrorist group — threatens to derail the Middle East peace effort.”
Should such a unity government be formed, the senators wrote, aid to the PA — which reportedly is slated to total $550 million in 2011 — should be cut, the senators wrote.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that American law would bar the U.S. from funding the PA should Hamas become an integral part of that government.
He took exception to J Street’s call for continued aid to the PA, saying it is “premature” to take that position until it is known how the reconciliation agreement will play out.
“Abbas may think he is calling the shots, but it will soon be put to a test,” Hoenlein said. “Will he release Hamas prisoners, and will Hamas release Fatah prisoners? And let’s see what happens if a rocket comes across the [Hamas-controlled Gaza] border. Will the PA take action? You can’t say you are reconciling and forming a unity government if you are not willing to uphold common standards.”
But Ben-Ami said that by withholding the tax money, Israel is the one changing the status quo.
“[Salam] Fayyad is still the prime minister, and the ministers who were in office last week are still there this week,” he said. “If they were good enough last week, why switch things now? They will appoint a new prime minister and new ministers [for the interim government], and the agreement between them is that these ministers will be nonpartisan. There will be no Hamas ministers, and the government will report to Abbas. He is the one responsible for setting Palestinian direction over the course of the next year. We are simply calling for the status quo to be continued.”
Ben-Ami pointed out that Hamas signed the agreement last week because “it saw its base of support getting rocked in Syria and because [the new leadership in Egypt] is interested in opening a relationship with them. The Egyptians want reconciliation [with Hamas], to open its border with Gaza, to get reconstruction aid to Gaza and to see Gilad Shalit released.”
Shalit is the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in a cross-border raid in June 2006. It is believed he continues to be held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Ben-Ami said he brought up the issue of Shalit in the group’s talks with both Abbas and Fayyad, telling them that “nothing would signal more clearly to the world that the new government is interested in peace than if there was a deal to release Gilad. They both said they would work for this within the framework of a prisoner exchange. They see this as an opportunity to get quite a few prisoners released; we raised it as a [goodwill] gesture.”
In another development, the Anti-Defamation League called this week on the international community to demand one more requirement of Hamas before it can be removed from the list of terrorist organizations. It said that in addition to requiring it to recognize the State of Israel, renouncing the use of terrorism and violence, and recognizing previously negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreements, Hamas must also renounce the anti-Semitism inherent in its founding ideology and expunge from its charter all elements of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and rhetoric.
The ADL said the foundational ideology of Hamas “is based on age-old, classic anti-Semitic myths.”
“The founding covenant of Hamas is committed not only to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in its place, but is replete with raw, unadulterated Jew-hatred,” it said.