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Does J Street harm Israel? Sparks fly during IJN facilitated discussion

Les Canges (l), J Street’s local representative, faces off with J Street critic Don Jacobson (r) at the IJN. (Photo: Lucia De Giovanni)PLACING Jews with opposing viewpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in the same room is like venturing outside on an early spring evening.

Dress for polite breezes, but be prepared for sudden storms.

The Intermountain Jewish News set the stage for some unpredictable weather when it invited ActionIsrael board member Don Jacobson and Les Canges of J Street to debate the issues in our conference room.

Canges, active in Brit Tzedek V’Shalom for several years, became Colorado’s J Street representative when the local chapter launched a couple of months ago. The interview marked his inaugural entrance into the lion’s den.

Jacobson, a former member of the AIPAC Council and an established critic of the liberal organization, arrived first. Asked whether he would be speaking for himself or ActionIsrael, the attorney smiled. “Myself — inherently.”

J Street, founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008, has quickly earned both support and condemnation for its approach to peace in the Mideast.

According to its website, J Street “gives political voice to mainstream American Jews and other supporters of Israel who, informed by their progressive and Jewish values, believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy.”

While the majority of Jews, including Benjamin Netanyahu, accept the necessity of a two-state solution, J Street’s critics accuse the organization of using undue influence to impose an agenda considered harmful to Israel on the Obama administration.

But J Street has also found a wealth of supporters who argue for East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state and believe that continued Israeli building there poses a dire threat to negotiations.

During the 90-minute session, Canges, a soft-spoken man who only raised his voice when he felt personally provoked, defended what to many is indefensible. He also welcomed the opportunity to converse with the other side.

Jacobson, armed with facts, statistics and unbowed passion, presented his case in deliberate tones that frequently gave way to barely suppressed indignation.

Despite intense disagreements over Israeli building, Palestinian control of East Jerusalem and J Street’s mode of operation, the two men maintained eye contact and congenial borders.

Still, boxers’ gloves replaced the white gloves of civility on more than one occasion.

At the conclusion, Canges and Jacobson shook hands, not across the White House lawn but the large brown IJN conference table.

No treaties were signed, no stances softened. Neither were any blows struck or blood shed. Whether this spirited yet periodically prickly exhange yields future dialogue is something only time will tell.

The following is an edited transcript of the debate.

IJN: On its website, J Street bills itself as “the new address for Middle East peace and security.” What was wrong with the old address?

Les Canges: I don’t know what one might say is wrong with the old address. But there is no J Street in Washington. There is a K Street. There is an I Street. So J Street took an open street and made it the new address for Middle East peace.

I do believe we have an approach to Middle East peace that actually resonates with most Jews, especially most American Jews. We are helping achieve a true Mideast peace.

Don Jacobson: I think it’s interesting that they picked a non-existent street after which to model the organization. I appreciate J Street’s intentions. But I grew up in the South, and I’m very mindful of what is my favorite Southern aphorism: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I find it particularly disturbing, and arrogant, that any group of American Jews should find it desirable to point out all their efforts to get the American government to step out of its role of a helpful facilitator and into the role of a pressurer for one side. And clearly that is what the Obama administration is hearing from J Street.

Canges: I believe the Obama administration is mindful of us because we are actually trying to find a just and viable Mideast peace. But we are not pressuring anybody. We are merely pointing out issues and policies that hinder peace.

As an example, when our vice president was in Israel, the Israeli government took that moment to announce more settlements in East Jerusalem, which is disputed area.

Jacobson: I find it particularly fascinating that the only problem is that we’re going to have Jews living in Jerusalem. I haven’t heard J Street make any noise about any other group being allowed to live any place, or being excluded from living any place. Unless of course it’s Jews living in a neighborhood that’s been under a planning process for 15 years and won’t begin for many more.

Now I agree the timing of the announcement sucked. But it is simply dishonest to claim that it is 1) a new settlement at all; 2) that it was a substantial change in policy that was announced; or 3) that it is in any way capable of preventing negotiations.

Anyone who has negotiated a raise in his allowance or anything more serious than that knows that if the Palestinians really have a problem they can come to the table and negotiate that.

The problem is not that Jews have announced there are going to be Jewish children living in Jerusalem. What the Obama administration has done, with J Street’s support, is to hinder the negotiations, not help them. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Canges: I’m not sure where you get all your facts. I do know that a large portion of what people in the world call East Jerusalem is Arab territory and has been Arab territory for years. Those who live in that territory actually have much less of a right to live wherever they want than Jews who live in those territories, especially Western Jerusalem.

So when these things are announced — 1,600 new housing developments in East Jerusalem — at the time when our vice president is there to move the peace process along, it’s a direct snub.

Jacobson. First, it wasn’t 1,600 housing developments. It was 1,600 apartments. Now if you’ve spent any amount of time in Israel, you know that 1,600 apartments is a couple of square blocks, on the outside. So what we’re really talking about is an area that’s already there.

Secondly, East Jerusalem as Arab territory is a claim and has never been anything more than a claim.

If you go back to 1947 to the partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be international territory. The way East Jerusalem became what you are calling Arab territory is when Jordan conquered it in an aggressive war that was a violation of international law and does not confer sovereign status. So if you want to play law, East Jerusalem has never been Arab territory.

Canges: And yet there are Arabs who have been living there for hundreds of years.

Jacobson: Some of them have. Of course it’s convenient to omit that the Jews who weren’t living there were driven out in an aggressive war.

Canges: As were the Arabs in West Jerusalem.

Jacobson: I lived in Jerusalem. There are Arabs on both sides of the city. People drove each other out.

Canges: We can talk about massacres on all sides of this issue. This will not bring us to a viable, just, sustainable peace in Israel and Jerusalem. I feel that more development, more assumption of territory that is disputed, won’t bring us to peace either.

JACOBSON: The point is we have Jews in America who say, “We believe there’s a place in the world where we don’t think Jews should be able to live.” I cannot conceive of what would happen in the J Street leadership if somebody said there was a portion of Washington, DC, where African Americans were not able to live.

Canges: No, I don’t see that at all. I see a vibrant, multicultural city that accepts various kinds of Jewish people, various kinds of Christians, various kinds of Arabs. I see that shining city of Jerusalem, if you will.

IJN: Do you envision Jerusalem being something other than a Jewish city?

Canges: That depends on what you call Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been defined by many people, and of late mostly by the Israeli government who at one point had a plan to make Tel Aviv part of Jerusalem. If someone wants to consider this vast piece of territory that wasn’t Jerusalem 80 years ago (the Old City is a different entity), then truly, that’s where the dispute lies.

What is Jerusalem? Where is Jerusalem? It’s not Umm Tuba. It’s not Sheikh Jarrah. This is not the Jerusalem that I as a Jew would respond to.

By the way, I agree that Jews should be allowed to live anywhere, even in Palestine, if they agree to live by the rules of that sovereign land. They should be treated as citizens. I would love to see that in all of Palestine and all of Israel. And I would love to see Arabs have that same right of citizenship.

Jacobson: That definition by itself establishes that all the whining about Ramat Shlomo is fake. Because if it doesn’t make any difference where Jews live, that it will not affect sovereignty, then the problem with the negotiations is not a Jewish neighborhood in what might become Palestinian Authority territory. It’s simply an excuse not to negotiate.

Canges: I disagree. I believe the Palestinians do want to negotiate — and negotiate in good faith. And negotiate with the idea that indeed, as J Street would like to see, there would be a true Jewish Israel — a Jewish democratic, demographic Israel with approved internationally recognized borders.

But the best way to achieve peace is to have Jerusalem as the capital of this democratic state and to have East Jerusalem, which is the great desire of most of the Arabs who live in that area, as the capital of Palestine.

Jacobson: I find that last statement fascinating. Once again, the reality on the ground is different from J Street’s theory. Every year, a portion of Arab residents of East Jerusalem have applied for and received Israeli ID cards. However, every time negotiations grow nearer and they fear that a Palestinian state may take over that neighborhood, the requests for Israeli citizenship increase in the Arab sections of town. So the idea . . .

Canges: Where did you get that information?

Jacobson: The Israeli ministry that accepts the information for applications.

Canges: I was there in February. I was in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus. When I talked to politicians, they were very interested in establishing a Palestinian state with Palestinian sovereignty, side by side with Israel.

They recognized Israel as the Jewish democratic state and said they would be thrilled to have this kind of neighbor vs. a neighbor that wants to take over the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and perhaps beyond.

Jacobson: Can you point out a single time when that statement has been published in Arabic?

Canges: No. But I can’t provide supporting information regarding what you just said, either.

Jacobson: I challenge you to find me a publication in the Palestinian Authority recognizing the state of Israel and agreeing to a two-state solution in Arabic.

Canges: As far as that goes, I’m sure the Arab initiative of 2002 calling for a just and sustainable peace in the region was published in Arabic.

Jacobson: Well, I’m sure you can find that. You can also find that it calls for all areas acquired after June 4, 1967, to be Judenrein, including the Old City.

But this concept that it’s good for the Jews to agree that there’s a place in the world, especially in our own city, where we’re not allowed to live, is about as racist as anything I’ve ever heard.

Canges: You didn’t get that from J Street. You didn’t get that from me.

Jacobson: Well I thought you just said that you thought the Arab initiative of 2002, which you said was racist is a good . . .

Canges: I didn’t say it was racist. I said the Arab population would be very happy with a solution that would allow for people of all faiths and outlooks to live in peace and harmony in that part of the world. Jews could even keep their settlements. The point is, Jews in Palestine would be given exactly the same rights as Arabs who live in Israel.

Jacobson: Jews are not permitted to set foot in Saudi Arabia. It is a crime punishable by death to sell land to a Jew in Jordan or the Palestinian Authority. If those are the rights you are advocating for Jews in Palestine, I have a very fundamental disagreement . . .

Canges: I’m saying the rights would be equivalent or the same for Arabs in Jewish Israel.

IJN: It seems like the issue comes down to whether one trusts or mistrusts the Palestinians.

Jacobson: No, I think that’s a mistake. I’m a mediator. I make a living helping people settle disputes. Trust is a critical issue, but there’s a second step to it. So to say that we have to establish trust and only then can we do things misses the point. What has to happen first is that the parties have to be able to sit down. They have to be able to buy into a goal.

What the US has done, and what J Street is advocating, relieves the Palestinians of any obligation and in fact makes it harder for them to buy into a goal of a two-state solution with negotiated parameters.

In a negotiation, you can set up all kinds of contingencies:

“I don’t really trust you to quote me accurately, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll sit at the table with you and we’ll record it and each one gets copies of the recording and then we’ll test. I don’t have to trust you up front, but I have to have a mechanism that we can use to verify and settle our agreements with.”

The same thing applies to all the other negotiations.


Canges: Don, I appreciate and am actually heartened to hear that at least we do agree that what we seek is a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, with secure borders. If this were a mediation, this is certainly one of the places where we could start and begin to develop certain ideas and parameters.

This to me is one of the great achievements of the last 20 years. We are beginning to hear people on all sides of this issue in the United States agreeing that a two-state solution is the appropriate way to end this conflict. I’m very happy to hear this.

Jacobson: There’s just one little problem. We’re not hearing those sounds from the Palestinian side in English. With the exception of statements made to Americans and Europeans, what is being said in Arabic is not the same. What is happening from the Palestinians is not the same.

This goes back to our original discussion about trust, and exemplifies the issue. The supposed neutrals are not acting as neutrals. They are not in fact facilitating steps to allow two states to exist side by side.

When the US, in a complete departure from the most stringent objections of the past, is setting substantive parameters, it is locking one side in and one side out. It’s intellectually dishonest.

IJN: Do you think J Street is doing anything correctly?

Jacobson: I personally have accepted that the way this is going to be resolved is with a second or perhaps third Palestinian state. Those are the facts on the ground.

The reality of the situation is that one way or another, we have created a polity, which calls itself the Palestinian people, and that polity has sufficient political cohesion despite its internal divisions.

The only way for it to function is to have its independence. Right now, because of the severe disparity between Gaza and the West Bank, I’m not sure there can be just one Palestinian state and have it function.

Canges: I agree that with Hamas’ control of Gaza there has been a major split and difference between how people function in Gaza and how people function in the West Bank. As envisioned by the UN in 1947 and to some extent after 1948, the ideal was establishing a Palestine with some kind of access and contiguous borders between Gaza and the West Bank.

The armistice line does not have that.

But I still believe this would be the most peaceful solution and provide the greatest security for Israel and the Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

I would rather see a two-state solution than a three-state solution. I don’t think a three-state solution is viable. I would much rather see Gaza integrated into a vibrant Palestine.

For example, I think a lot of the Israeli policies toward Gaza since 2005 have actually bolstered Hamas. Hamas has assumed a very unfortunate control that they might not have had if there had been a more give-and-take negotiation.

IJN: How much would Palestinian control of East Jerusalem affect the Jewish character of Jerusalem?

Canges: I was treated very warmly when I was there. Clearly I’m an American. But I was welcomed wherever I went. I realize they treat me as an American and they need my support. But I wouldn’t expect to be treated that differently in a Palestine that had East Jerusalem as its capital.

Jacobson: This is the exact reason that all the noise about settlements is a false issue and a distraction. If the issue were about giving the Jews the choice of staying where they are but knowing there would be a different sovereign tomorrow, the discussion would be radically different. The Palestinians have every reason to come to the table.

But once the issue is “the Jews have to leave before we can discuss anything,” or “the Jews have to agree in advance of discussions that something substantive must happen . . .”

Canges: I totally disagree. I don’t see that in the majority of Palestinians who, like the majority of Israelis, want this kind of peace. Palestinians would be more than happy to come to the table with the idea that Jewish people could live in Palestine and Arabs could live in Israel and no one has to leave. I’ve never even heard of the term “Judenrein.”

Jacobson: Al Capone’s gangsters didn’t really care how much protection money Al was paid. But Al cared. To equate Palestinian popular opinion with American popular opinion or Jewish popular opinion as we influence the government of Israel or the United States is delusional. The Palestinians don’t live in a democracy.

If you look at Hamas, and you look at what it does to its own people, and you look at how it came to power in Gaza, you’re not talking about democracy. You’re talking about an armed insurrection.

Canges: Except for that one vote, of course.

Jacobson: Which it lost.

Canges: I recall that Tzipi Livni had the plurality of the vote [in Israel’s last election].

Jacobson: I understand that. But we have to recognize the difference between winning a majority and not winning a majority. Hamas had a role in the government that it got proportionally in the election and then took over Gaza by force. This is not democracy.

If you see the Palestinian territories without an escort — and I don’t know if it’s as true today as eight or 10 years ago — the line used to be that you can’t buy a Coke without buying someone off. The corruption and the graft were overwhelming.

Would the average Arab on the street prefer to be left alone to make a living and support his family and give his children an education? Yes, absolutely.
But he’s not the one making the decisions. Fatah is making the decisions.

Frankly, I agree with you that most Palestinians would like a hands-off government. But they’re not the ones controlling the arms or the borders or security. If you think for a minute that the Palestinian courts are independent of the ruling political party, you are delusional. If you think for a minute that the Palestinian militias no longer exist, you are delusional.

While it would be nice for everyone to live happily, the truth is that the Israeli government is going to have to make peace with the governing body of the Palestinians, which is the PA. And the PA will not tolerate the presence of Jews in its territory.

Canges: That is not what I heard. I met with Palestinian Authority officials and that’s not what I heard.

Jacobson: And I appreciate that this is what they said in English. But it is not what they say to each other in Arabic. And that’s a big deal.

IJN: And that’s mistrust.

Jacobson: Correct. So now what do you do? Do you refuse to negotiate or do you say, “I don’t trust you, but I will do this and I will look at your response. And depending on your response, then I’ll do something.”

That’s how you make agreements that last in the face of distrust.

Let us assume that we agree on a border for a Palestinian state. And let us assume that border includes certain neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. If we make those assumptions, and the US imposes them on the parties, which is what J Street seems to be proposing . . .

Canges: No, no, no, you have that wrong. J Street advocates absolutely a negotiated solution between the two parties, with the US as an honest broker at most. I don’t know where you get this information.

Jacobson: Every time a third party comes in and makes an announcement intended to pressure either side publicly, it is sowing the seeds of the destruction of the result.

Any organization that stands up in public and says that Jews shouldn’t live in East Jerusalem, that we can’t build in Jewish neighborhoods, and that the United States should threaten Israel with some kind of sanction, which J Street has done  . . .

Canges: No they haven’t. No they haven’t. Sanctions are definitely not J Street’s solution to the problem. J Street is foursquare against sanctions.

IJN: Is it possible for the two of you to leave this room without resolving your differences yet still entertain the possibility of future dialogue?

Canges: I’d love to. J Street believes that we are moving that dialogue along, even by my being here today. We want to participate in the debate. I’m personally happy to hear Don’s opinions and learn things from him. But I also want to understand where [he] got such incorrect information about J Street.

Jacobson: I think the fundamental problem with J Street is that it has arrogated to itself the belief that it is a participant in the process, and that it has a political role to play in attempting to affect a tangible result. And I think that sort of arrogance is destructive for Israel.

Canges: If I’m going to be called arrogant, if I’m going to be called names . . .

Jacobson: I didn’t call Les arrogant, I called J Street arrogant. I think that when any organization attempts to urge a neutral [party] to be other than neutral, it is acting destructively. It is fine for J Street to establish whatever it wants to do in the state of Israel, to support Israeli political parties . . .

Canges: We’re an American organization!

Jacobson: I think that’s fine. But when an organization here, be it on the right or the left, attempts to foster substantive results, it arrogates to itself a power that is dangerous and destructive.

To the extent that I can speak for the organizations for which I play or have played a role, we want to educate, support. But we don’t try to lobby the government of the United States to act substantively because we believe Israel won’t act.

Canges: We don’t say that.

Jacobson: G-d knows there are reasons [for Israelis and Arabs] to distrust each other. I appreciate what the Arabs may think. And I appreciate what different groups of Jews may think. But as long as there are groups doing the Palestinians’ negotiations for them, they have no reason to come to the table.

IJN: And this where you place J Street in the equation?

Jacobson: Yes. J Street is announcing its result in advance, and doing what it can in my opinion to try to get the US to impose their result.

Canges: I respectfully disagree  . . . AIPAC has been influencing the US government ever since it was established — often for good, and sometimes, in my opinion, not for good. AIPAC frequently get its agenda approved by the United States government. That’s what they’ve been doing. I don’t see how that differs.

IJN: It appears that American Jewry is becoming increasingly polarized over the subject of Israel.

Canges: If that is the case, then it’s time for us to attempt to at least get the conversation on the table and find out why. Even as Don excoriates Obama and J Street’s supposed influence on Obama, 68% of American Jews still approve of his position on the Middle East.

I’m for a vibrant dialogue with those who would argue that the president is not facilitating or attempting to facilitate a peaceful resolution in that part of the world — especially now that AIPAC, Netanyahu and J Street agree that eventually there will be a Palestinian state.

Jacobson: I don’t know whether J Street has anywhere near as much influence as [AIPAC] or anybody else. The problem is not who has the most influence. That’s a political discussion. The problem is that J Street has a goal, and the means of achieving it are destructive.

Canges: Now I want specifics. I’ve heard these statements throughout this interview. I don’t know what specifics you are referring to.

Jacobson: Look at J Street’s position. Look at the people it gives money to, the organizations it supports.

Canges: The New Israel Fund.

Jacobson: And that in itself says a whole lot.

Canges: It says we support democracy in Israel.

One last thing. When I got involved with this issue a few years ago, I realized that demographics play a key role. The Israelis are very concerned that they’ll lose the demographic edge. But the demographics will increase [under the two-state solution]. This is the hope for Israel. This is the demographic and democratic hope for Israel.

Jacobson: Then there needs to be a lot of support to get the Palestinian Authority to the table. The problem is not getting Israel to the table. The problem is getting the Palestinians to the table.

Canges: The Palestinians I spoke with want to negotiate. But I didn’t talk to Abbas.

Jacobson: Abbas is not at the table. Faayad is not at the table. Erekat is not at the table. If Al Capone is not at the table, you’re not negotiating with the real power.

Other features in this week’s special print edition include :

  • First person account of a high school graduate’s year in Israel
  • Israelis living in Denver share their food stories and recipes
  • This sister city relationship between Denver and Karmiel, Israel

Order your copy by contacting Carol at (303) 861-2234 or carol@ijn.com.



Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer | andrea@ijn.com


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