Given the moribund state of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a speaking tour by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and Palestinian Authority diplomat Maen Rashid Areikat was intended to provide a glimmer of hope.
The two headlined an Oct. 20 conversation in San Francisco organized by World Affairs, one of a series of West Coast appearances last week.
Both Areikat and Ben-Ami, who founded the left-leaning J Street in 2007, laid much of the blame for stalled talks and rising tensions on the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on the nearly half-century Israeli presence in the West Bank, especially the Jewish settlements established there.
But they also piled plenty of blame on the United States and what they consider America’s mishandling of its role as honest broker.
“There had been political dialogue until Bibi,” Areikat said, referring to Netanyahu. “[Former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert met with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas 72 times.”
“The United States is the only country that does not label what Israel does in the West Bank as illegal,” Ben-Ami added. “The U.S. should join the rest of the world, the United Nations and declare [occupation and settlement construction] illegal.”
He also called on the United States to stop labeling Israeli imports of products made in West Bank settlements as “Made in Israel,” the implication being Americans could then choose to boycott those products.
Despite his criticisms, Ben-Ami reaffirmed he is pro-Israel, supports a strong Israeli military and that he unequivocally opposes BDS, the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel.
“We recognized the right of the Palestinian people to a state,” he said. “BDS does not recognize the same for Israel or the Jewish people. It makes no distinction between the West Bank and Israel as a whole. We should look for ways to invest, not divest.”
While saying the PA is “not in the business of delegitimizing Israel,” Areikat said Palestinians have a right to delegitimize “occupation and the settlement enterprise.” He also criticized opponents of BDS for labeling the movement “anti-Semitic and bullying.”
The two became friends in Washington, D.C., where both live. Areikat, who heads the PLO delegation there, has served as coordinator-general of the PA’s negotiations affairs department, and was part of the Palestinian diplomatic team for the Wye River agreement signed by Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1998.
Ben-Ami said the two found they had much in common and focused on putting forth a “model of how to build a future together.”
Areikat and Ben-Ami agreed more people-to-people contacts between Israelis and Palestinians would help diffuse mutual mistrust, though opportunities for such meetings these days are rare.
The two disagreed on the need for U.S. military assistance to Israel. Ben-Ami approved of it, saying Israel still faces numerous adversaries in the region.
“Why does Israel need $38 billion in weapons?” Areikat asked. “Who is Israel afraid of?” In response, Ben-Ami said, “Come on! Iran?”
The two did seem to agree that internationalizing a solution to the conflict would have a better outcome than the existing model of U.S.-brokered peace, which has so far failed.
“The position of the United States government is the obstacle,”Areikat said, “by refusing to recognize two states. I want to see similar [American] concern for the well-being of Palestinian people.”
Perhaps the most hopeful moment of the conversation came at the end when Areikat addressed the topic of Hamas and terrorists’ stranglehold on Gaza, causing a seemingly intractable divide in Palestinian society. He said the PLO disagrees with Hamas and continues to impress on its leadership that “there is only a political solution” to the conflict, adding, “There is no military solution.”
For his part, Ben-Ami noted that many conflict-weary Israelis believe they live in a “post-Palestinian” political world, but that “it’s an illusion.”
“Until the conflict is resolved,” he said, “the project of building Israel is not done. It could unravel.”