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Mares: J Street

06/20/12 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(Host) As an educator, writer and former state legislator, commentator Bill Mares is always on the lookout for the ever-elusive middle ground solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Last week at a Burlington synagogue, he heard one plausible attempt.

(Mares) Recently, Temple Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington was packed to hear Mr. Jeremy Ben-Ami bring a message of tough love for Israel and American Jews.

Ben Ami heads a group called J Street which advocates a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He says that the current path of ever more Jewish settlements in the west bank is simply not sustainable.

Ben Ami has impeccable credentials for his "Pro Peace Pro Israel" platform. His grandparents were pioneers to Palestine in the 19th Century. His father was a member of the paramilitary group Irgun before Israeli Independence. Born and educated in the U.S. Ben Ami has been President Bill Clinton's Deputy Domestic Policy Adviser, and later Policy Director on Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

In four years J Street has grown to a staff of 50 with chapters on 44 campuses. It is now seen as a serious alternative voice to the dominant pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Political Action Committee, known as AIPAC.

Ben-Ami says "We've got to change the rules of conversation about Israel in the United States. Criticism of some Israel policies does not mean criticism of Israel's right to exist." It is NOT anti-Semitic to ask Israel to abide by Judaism's best values.

Ben-Ami agrees that Israel lives in a "terrible neighborhood." But, the old narrative of David and Goliath doesn't apply any more.

In Ben-Ami's view Israel faces a TRI-lemma: The Jewish state must chose among the following: the land it has occupied since 1967, its Jewish majority, and its democracy. It can only have two of the three. If it chooses to hold on to the land, and remain a democracy, then very soon the majority of the population will be non-Jewish and will eventually, democratically, displace Israel's Jewish character. If it hangs onto the land and chooses to remain Jewish in character, it will have to limit the democratic rights of the non-Jewish majority.

Only by giving up land on which a Palestinian state can be built, can Israel remain both Jewish and democratic. Good fences make good neighbors, he says.  Israel and Palestine are in a bad marriage. They can't sort it out alone. "When is the last time you put an angry husband and wife together and they sorted it out without help?" Ben-Ami ask. "They need the outside brokers of the United States and American Jews."

I think Ben Ami has done an impressive job of balancing emotional devotion and intellectual honesty on one of the world's most intractable problems. But trying for the middle ground makes him an inviting target for extremes on both sides. On the right, he's criticized for being a self-hating Jew. On the left he's attacked for not supporting cuts in US military aid to Israel.

Ben Ami acknowledges that to implement this solution would be a big challenge.

While public opinion polls show that nearly 70% of both Israelis and Palestinians believe the only agreement possible is a two-state solution, 80% don't believe it will happen.
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