'Two states critical for Israel's future'


More than 2,500 policymakers, Middle East experts, religious leaders, community activists and students converged in Washington over the weekend for J Street's second national conference.

The self-styled pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby group is working to re-focus the US foreign policy agenda on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The stated aim of the event, titled "Making History", was to "chart the future of the pro-Israel movement".

J Street media relations director, Jessica Rosenblum said: "First and foremost, this conference aims to make clear that to be pro-Israel is to put the two-state solution and a vigorous US role in helping to achieve it front and centre of the American policy agenda."

Former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, delivered the keynote speech at the conference. His participation prompted Palestinian rights groups to call on B'Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the Occupied Territories, to withdraw from the conference. During his speech, Mr Olmert said the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, "wants peace with Israel. It may not be the same peace we want, but that's why we negotiate," he said.

He added the caveat that "no one should relieve the Palestinians from their responsibilities".

“Mahmoud Abbas wants peace with Israel. Not the same peace, but that’s why we negotiate” - Ehud Olmert

Mr Olmert also went into detail about the peace plan he promoted while in office, arguing that nobody should have sovereignty over Temple Mount.

Other high-profile speakers at the conference included Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, Israeli author Amos Oz, and US journalist Peter Beinart, who launched his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, at the conference. Mr Beinart made it clear he was in favour of a "Zionist" boycott of West Bank settlement goods.

The four-day event included 40 workshops and seminars on topics ranging from Iran, Jewish extremism, pro-Israel activism, settlements and the Arab Spring.

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said the organisation's challenge is to "lead the pro-Israel movement into the future under the only banner that can give Israel security as the democratic, Jewish homeland: Bold action in support of a two-state solution. If mobilising to achieve a two-state solution does not become the very cornerstone of the pro-Israel movement, then we are not truly helping Israel to face one of its most critical challenges."

Asked whether the event was conceived as an alternative to the high-powered American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Ms Rosenblum said: "We don't define ourselves in relation to any other conference agenda."

Liberal Zionist groups in Britain have not backed Mr Beinart's call for a boycott of West Bank settlement goods. Hannah Weisfeld, co-ordinator of Yachad, said: "While we hugely respect Peter Beinart and believe he adds an important voice to the debate, we believe that all forms of boycott are counter-productive." Dan Levene, co-chairman of Brits for Peace Now, said that a "Zionist BDS isn't something we would support."

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