In what was a surprising and disconcerting development, 30 of the most influential and politically powerful American Jews identified with the pro-Israel lobby, met recently with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in what was called a “dinner and conversation.” The Palestinian leadership has never before met formally with Jewish American supporters of Israel, who as a group are usually more intransigent than the Israeli government in power.
The event, which was described as “surreal” by one of the organizers, took place in Washington on the evening of June 9. The meeting was sponsored by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is currently headed by former Florida congressman, Robert Wexler. As a legislator, Wexler was a staunch and mostly uncritical supporter of Israeli government policy. He was a leading defender of the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza and recently justified the Israeli commando assault upon the Turkish-led aid flotilla as self-defense.
In attendance at the event, in which Abbas spent 90 minutes answering questions from the Jewish leaders, were an all-star-team of prominent pro-Israel activists. Among the participants were leaders of the most powerful Jewish organizations: Howard Kohr, Executive Director of AIPAC; Lee Rosenberg, President of AIPAC; Robert Sugarman, National Chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); and Alan Solow, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Also present were former government officials Elliot Abrams, Steve Hadley (I guess he must be Jewish) and Dov Zakheim. The pro-Israel American press was represented by Mort Zuckerman. (This list is taken from the S. Daniel Abraham Center’s website.)
A transcript of the meeting was made apparently at the insistence of the Palestinian leader. (It has been made available to various media and Jewish organizations, but is not, to my knowledge, been publicly posted online.) In his replies to questions, Abbas attempted to assure those gathered that he was a reliable peace partner, that he is a strong opponent of the Palestinian armed struggle and that he will promote the understanding of the Holocaust among Palestinians. Abbas also told the Jewish leaders that he will do all he can to limit what the Israelis and American Jewish leaders claim is a campaign of “incitement” to anti-Israel violence in the Palestinian media, in the mosques and in textbooks. Abbas stated that he was willing to talk to the Jewish leaders in an effort to explain his positions and win their support.
The answers that Abbas gave his interlocutors will not endear him to many Palestinians, who already tend to view the Palestinian President as more concerned with pleasing his American benefactors than fighting for justice and Palestinian rights. Most of them believe that an armed response to the brutal Israeli oppression is justified and that the incitement charge is both exaggerated and too widely defined. An example of this is the suppression of the displays of Palestinian flags in Jerusalem, which is justified by Israeli claims that they incite violence. Also many believe that Israeli actions are the prime cause of the violence and anger, and to the extent that the Israelis change their behavior, the Palestinians’ anger and violence will decrease.
How many words have been written and spoken in the last 10 years which make the case that these same people in attendance at the Abbas meeting are the lobbyists who are the engine driving a self-defeating U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? Members of this group and others like them have too much power to influence policy. Now they have direct contact with the only Palestinian negotiating partner which the U.S. and Israel will recognize. This cannot be good.
Although most reports of the meeting describe it as cordial and beneficial, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of JStreet, professes another view. Expressing disappointment in the behavior of the Jewish leaders, Ben-Ami told Ron Kampeas of the Jewish news agency JTA, that “[w]e have a man [Abbas] ready to make peace, and we raised [the issue of incitement-filled Palestinian] television shows and said for that reason he is not a partner.”
JStreet is the Jewish group that is politically closest to the Obama administration. This begs the question of what the administration thought of the meeting. It is likely that Obama’s Middle East team does not want these Jewish leaders in direct contact with Abbas, thus creating a possibility of opening an additional competing channel for the negotiations or maybe a proxy group of negotiators for the Netanyahu government. A minority of those in attendance, like Debra DeLee of Americans for Peace Now, were from so-called moderate pro-Israel groups or individuals like Sandy Berger not known as strong AIPAC supporters. However, Ben-Ami was not listed as one of those in attendance. I wonder if JStreet’s exclusion was a message to the Obama administration that this group wants an even more pro-Israel policy from this White House. I am afraid that these Jewish leaders will get what they want simply because they have the power to make it happen, a fact that is illustrated by Abbas’ willing attendance at this tawdry Jewish affair.
The reason why the American Jewish leaders would want to hold this meeting is not totally clear. Robert Wexler, the organizer of the event, probably hopes that it will enhance his stature as a player in the world of U.S. – Israel diplomacy. He may also feel that it will improve his chances for an appointment as the next U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv. It is a position he does did not deny that he covets in a recent interview by Ha’aretz reporter, Natasha Mozgovaya. Others, such a Elliot Abrams, probably just attended so that they could report that he “is skeptical about [Abbas’] ability to deliver, his evasiveness suggested that he doesn’t want to be pinned down on substantive issues.” I wonder though how many of the attendees thought that this and future meetings could give them increased leverage in their quest to protect Israeli interests.
I really do not see any good coming from meetings between this group of powerful pro-Israel Jews and Mahmoud Abbas. If the Jewish leaders actually wanted to support Abbas in a quest for a fair and just two-state solution they would never compromise his credibility by a public meeting in which they force him to be conciliatory bordering on the obsequious.