Peace Prospects May Look Bleak, but Dovish Group Still Pushes Talks

As the Bush administration looks for ways to resuscitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a dovish group claiming to represent a fresh voice in the Jewish community feels it’s gaining momentum.

Catalyzed by opposition to Israel’s proposed unilateral steps in the West Bank, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, is offering lawmakers an alternative message to the one from the majority of the organized Jewish community.

Brit Tzedek, which bills itself as a pro-peace, pro-Israel movement, insists on a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. In the four years since it was founded in the midst of the Palestinian intifada, the group claims to have grown to more than 34,000 supporters in more than 30 chapters nationwide.

Last week, about 150 supporters converged on Washington for the organization’s National Advocacy Days, which included a reception on Capitol Hill and a lobbying mission in the halls of Congress.

“We believe that there’s no way you can resolve a conflict between two peoples by one people dictating the end of the game,” Steve Masters, national chairman of Brit Tzedek’s Advocacy and Public Policy Committee, said of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

“I haven’t seen any example anywhere in the world where you can resolve any bilateral dispute unilaterally,” Masters said. “People have a fantasy that they can do that, but it really is only a fantasy.”

Brit Tzedek presents its approach as a departure from the view represented by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said the pro-Israel lobby long has supported a negotiated, two-state solution. However, that approach has changed since the Palestinians rejected Israeli peace offers and launched the intifada, then elected terrorist group Hamas to lead the Palestinian Authority.

“Absent a viable Palestinian partner that is sincere and willing to end terrorism,” Block said, “the United States must support Israel to secure its society until that partner emerges.”

Brit Tzedek disagrees.

“Our basic message is that Israel cannot have any peace and security without a negotiated solution,” Masters said. “There really isn’t any time when a negotiated settlement isn’t the right solution.”

Brit Tzedek is urging Congress and the Bush administration to use public diplomacy and back-channel discussions to engage relatively moderate figures like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“You work on ways to make him viable, you strengthen him, you strengthen the moderates and you give Hamas a way out, so that there is not just a losing proposition for them,” Masters said. “You work on ways so that there is a way for them to win by becoming more moderate, more pragmatic.”

It’s an old question – whether continuing to engage the Palestinians when they seem to turn away from peace nudges them toward moderation or rather shows them that rejectionism bears no cost.

Diane Balser, Brit Tzedek’s executive director, says there’s an absence of a debate on Israeli policy in the pro-Israel American Jewish community, leaving many Jews without a voice.

“In Israel there has always been a debate,” Balser said. “Yet in the American Jewish world, people have been scared of that debate for a long time.”

According to Benjamin Murane, chairman of the Brit Tzedek Campus Committee, the result is a black-and-white paradigm.

“The Jewish community in general is very, ‘Here is our opinion on these issues, and that’s the way you are going to take it.’ You are either pro-Israel all the way or you are anti-Israel,” Murane said.

Others say that’s simply not the case.

“Even today in the American Jewish community there are a range of Jewish voices – some to our right and some to our left – and they reflect different perspectives,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The notion that there is no debate is really a cheap shot and on closer examination does not jibe with the facts.”

Rather than silencing voices like Brit Tzedek’s, most groups simply reject their approach as simple-minded, several Jewish leaders said.

“Sloganeering about peace is one thing, but achieving peace is another,” Harris said. “It may be a feel-good exercise to claim you’re on the side of peace, but peace with whom given today’s reality?”

Still, some lawmakers on hand for Brit Tzedek’s Capitol Hill reception welcomed the diversity in the Jewish voice.

“One of the things that I’ve discovered is that there’s a rich diversity of opinion among supporters of Israel and the Jewish community,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “Too often in Congress we are dealing with bumper stickers, we’re dealing with slogans, we’re dealing with the lowest common denominator. This is providing the context, the nuance, the challenging ideas.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) promoted Brit Tzedek as a counterweight to what she described as AIPAC’s sway over the Jewish community.

“It is important that you are here because there is an understanding in Congress that AIPAC speaks for each and every one of you,” she told a crowd of about 90 at the reception. “There is a perception that there is only one voice on behalf of what the goal and how to work towards the goal for peace in the Middle East is.”

The organization is generally opposed to Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but would accept Israel’s retention of some settlement blocs if Palestinians are compensated with an equal amount of land from Israel proper.

It is adamantly opposed to cutting aid to the Palestinian people.

“I don’t see how we can serve our national interest and how Israel can meet its interest of peace and security if the Palestinian people are driven into a financial and economic cataclysm,” Masters said. “I’ve never seen a place where people who are starving are getting more moderate and more reasonable in their demands.”

Brit Tzedek showed its mettle earlier this month by engaging AIPAC in a grass- roots battle over a U.S. House of Representatives bill restricting aid to the Palestinians. The group swamped congressional offices with calls and letters opposing the bill.

Ultimately the House backed the measure, 361-37. The result may reflect the distaste lawmakers and many Americans feel for Brit Tzedek’s policies since Hamas took power in the Palestinian Authority.

Brit Tzedek’s leaders acknowledge that they still have a long way to go.

“The challenge is to use developing clout to influence U.S. foreign policy,” said Marcia Freedman, president of Brit Tzedek’s board. “We are swimming upstream, but with enormous energy.”

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