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In questionable move, J Street picks Olmert to headline conference

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – who was in power during the 2008-2009 military onslaught on Gaza, and who has been indicted on various corruption charges – is to provide the keynote address at the 3rd annual J Street Conference in Washington, D.C. at the end of March.

It’s not surprising that Ehud Olmert has been selected to give the keynote address at the upcoming J Street conference, since the lobby’s entire mission and raison d’etre hangs on a two-state solution – and Olmert is the bona fide two-state solution guy, branded as having offered Palestinians more in negotiations than any other Israeli prime minister in history. Indeed with the government we now have in power, Olmert appears quite the dove simply for having accepted the Arab Peace Initiative, and for agreeing to give up parts of East Jerusalem at the 2007 Annapolis Conference.

The choice of Olmert for a conference  called “Making History,” dedicated to a two-state solution, will likely be more about “history” than actually “making” anything. While it is not surprising, it is problematic and kind of infuriating.

Olmert, who emerged as prime minister in 2006 after Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and went into a protracted coma, is responsible for, among other things, a failed war in Lebanon, in which the IDF reserve units clearly suffered from lack of resources and organization, and “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza, which killed over 1,300 Palestinians and led to international condemnation of Israeli conduct and accusations of war crimes.

The UN-produced Goldstone Report initially charged Israel with purposely targeting civilians (though Richard Goldstone, after months of attacks and being ostracized by his own community, later retracted that accusation in a Washington Post article). This is the very same Goldstone Report that J Street was slammed by the American Jewish establishment for endorsing – even though it did not actually do so. (Rather, it insisted Israel establish an independent commission to investigate the accusations.) The very same Goldstone Report J Street should have endorsed, about a war that it should have condemned much more adamantly.

The lobby, which is competing against the thuggish America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – which is expecting 14,000 people at its imminent conference, and will be joined by the U.S. president, secretary of defense and Prime Minister Netanyahu – has no big-shot Israeli statesman to display in front of a liberal American Jewish crowd. Last year, the most prominent Knesset members J Street could muster were Daniel Ben-Simon (Labor) and Nachman Shai (Kadima). It was evident they had no one to bring from Israel’s Knesset, since Israel’s regime is so out of touch with their agenda – and the same applies this year. I’m sure J Street may like to have Zehava Gal-On or Shelly Yahimovitch, but they simply don’t have enough clout and are not well known outside Israel.

So I guess that leaves Olmert, who is out of politics, but is well-known. But does that merit having him speak at their conference? Even if we put aside his role in brutal and failed wars and credit him for his push for a two-state solution in 2008, he is currently engaged in a myriad of legal proceedings for several charges brought against him, among them double-billing family trips, accepting millions of shekels in bribes, fraud, tax evasion, granting personal favors, etc. In short, the guy is crooked, so what kind of message does it send to give him the honor of speaking at a conference of a self-proclaimed “pro-peace” lobby serving American Jews who are looking for something different, an alternative, something constructive? It is an insult.

Even though it really is slim pickings when it comes to finding a prominent Israeli figure who is known in the United States, can speak with authority and resolve about the need to break the status quo and who is not involved in any scandal – shouldn’t a group like J Street at least set for itself some red lines? Is it too much to ask them to refuse having a keynote speaker who is responsible for the reckless use of force and unconventional weapons that resulted in mass killings in Gaza, and who is currently being charged with numerous counts of corruption?

At this point, “Occupy AIPAC” seems like a much more constructive place to be – assuming the goal is to find a way to challenge and change American support for Israeli policies. Occupy AIPAC is a series of events organized to coincide with and challenge the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. As managing editor of The Nation, Roane Carey, who will be speaking at the Occupy AIPAC summit, recently wrote:

Opposition to AIPAC within the Jewish community has been growing for years; the emergence of the liberal counter-lobby J Street, along with courageous media voices like my comrades at Mondoweiss, is a testament to that. And never has the grassroots American movement against the occupation been so strong, as witnessed by the growth of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and the BDS movement, as well as Students for Justice in Palestine on college campuses. And yet the stranglehold of AIPAC and its clones on US government policy seems as toxic as ever. If that stranglehold isn’t broken soon, we may become embroiled in yet another war.

By inviting Olmert to keynote, J Street is certainly not helping to break that stranglehold, but rather almost feeding right into it.

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    1. Bill Pearlman

      If j-street was some sort of dynamic force you’d have Israeli politicians knocking each other over to speak there. It is telling that Olmert is the only guy you can get.

      BTW Mondoweiss is a site where Jews are routinely referred to has ticks, dogs, and rats. They also believe that Hitlers biggest fault was not finishing the Jews off and precluding the formation of Israel. And this has been stated explicitly. Also, that there is no Jewish people.

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    2. Jazzy

      I wonder if it has occurred to the BDS crowd that they are the equivalent of ultra-left chicken hawks, bleating incessantly about the ‘right of return’, trying to discredit the forces of pragmatism and moderation, all the while letting OTHER people raise their children of squalid refugee camps with no rights and no future. If you’re interested in playing the long game on Israel, maybe you should all move to the camps yourselves.

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    3. M Hatherstone

      “BTW Mondoweiss is a site where Jews are routinely referred to has ticks, dogs, and rats. They also believe that Hitlers biggest fault was not finishing the Jews off.”

      Sounds bad, so no doubt you can post something to prove that then. Link to an article, even a comment, anything will do. It sounds like a pretty disturbing place the way you described it.

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    4. Do you really criticise Olmert for not supporting the IDF enough while it bombed the shit out of Lebanaon? What is your problem? A failed war in Lebanon? Whould a won war with more people dead be better?

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    5. sh

      Pearlman, believe it or not, those who come here all read English and likely know sites like Mondoweiss. There are many things that could be said about it, not all of them flattering, but you have just told a series of downright lies, lost all credibility and won’t be read again – at least not by me.

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    6. Bill Pearlman

      Read the site, read what they say. Conspiracy theories and all. The ‘zionists” were behind Hitler. Israel was behind the bombings in India. Pat Buchanan was right. Hitler was not the villanb in WW2. Jews are ticks, rats, dogs. I’ve seem commentators in the supposedly moderated comments section say exactly that. Jews are made up people, don’t exist.. All there. So, don’t tell me what mondoweiss is like. Phil would be at home in Berlin 1938.

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    7. “At this point, ‘Occupy AIPAC’ seems like a much more constructive place to be – assuming the goal is to find a way to challenge and change American support for Israeli policies.”
      As an organisation, J-Street seems very disorientated – how is it possible to honour the founders of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement one year, then invite Ehud Olmert to be the keynote speaker a few years down the line? I don’t think they are ‘AIPAC Lite’, as I’ve heard them called, if only because AIPAC has a clear purpose in mind. J-Street lacks that. It also seems to have a preoccupation with its public image that prevents it from taking a decisive stance on any issue. They can’t expect to advocate for genuine justice and still enjoy mainstream approbation in American politics, not when Obama has pledged $30 billion to Israel in military aid. This political climate is inimical to peace, but J-Street persists in trying to find a home in it as opposed to challenging it.
      Jazzy, BDS and the RoR are only tangentially related to Mairav’s critique of J-Street. I don’t know why you keep bringing BDS up if you see it as so ineffective. Your recent comments on it don’t even deal with arguments for or against BDS as a strategy – they just consist of ad hominem attacks on its supporters, which make little sense when you look at the history of the BDS movement. Have you seen the list of Palestinian organisations that signed the initial BDS statement? There are many refugee organisations on there, ranging from cultural centres to political advocacy groups. I don’t know whom you imagine this ‘BDS crowd’ to be, but refugees are part of it, and an integral part at that.
      You also seem to conflate BDS with the RoR, when the campaign is far broader than that – it’s about justice and equality more generally. This does mean allowing refugees to choose what they want to do with their lives. So long as you’re prepared to deny them the right to make such a fundamental choice, you’re not in a position to accuse anyone of not caring about them.

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    8. DTA

      I agree with Mairav that Mr. Olmert is an unfortunate choice. Perhaps Uri Avnery could be a better voice — just saying, but I also understand J-Street may not want to lose the ‘mainstream’ people, if the ‘mainstram’ is unable to take anybody more progressive than Olmert. This hints J-Street has some identity problems. However, at this stage it is having a bad time portraying itself anything more than a “good cop” vs the obvious “bad cop”.

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    9. Bill Pearlman

      Phil and his merry band are also obsessed with eugenics, the master race, and everything in between.

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    10. Piotr Berman

      Bill Pearlman,

      if this is your real name, I can perhaps sue you because I am one of those dreaded “members of Mondofront” and you, Sir, engage in pure malicious slander. Cite, link, write “sorry” or shut up.

      Concerning Olmert, it seems unbelievable that so many Israeli politicians have unresolved legal issues. Olmert is still at large, and so is Lieberman and Neeman. Evaluation of complex and ambiguous secret evidence can be performed in a nick of time, but a straightforward question — say did Neeman have undeclared income or not — takes forever to resolve.

      Perhaps J-Street should cast a wider net to bag a former politicians. There are some former ministers who successfully paid their debt to the society and who could be interested in a venue to present their “views on the situation”. Putting them all together in one session would be very interesting. (I assume that the probation conditions allow for foreign travel, but if not, one can make a video connection.)

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    11. XYZ

      J-Street was never intended to be a coherent ideological movement. It was set up to be a “Jews for Obama” organization. Obama and many progressive Jews were talking before 2008 about the possibility of dividing the Ameican Jewish community against Israel by taking the line that supposedly most American Jews were Leftist-progressives who opposed the Likud, opposed the settlements and opposed the Orthdox/religious in Israel. Obama would openly go against these groups while still claiming that he was “pro-Israel” and the J-Streeters would be bleating that they support his “tough-love” approach. After the disastrous failure of Obama’s demand that Israel freeze the settlements (something that Olmert never did) and to divide the American Jewish community, J-Streeet lost any reason to exist, but since so much money was poured into it, they have to find some reason to justify what they have done and its well-paid executives have to explain to Soros why he and his friends should continue to fund them.

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    12. Jazzy

      Vicky: you haven’t properly understood my comments – I’ve mostly been re-hashing Finkelstein’s and Chomsky’s arguments against BDS, and pointing out that nobody has actually responded to their arguments. And Chomsky and Finkelstein have talked specifically about how BDS has been counterproductive as a strategy. So, if you’re just interested in mis-characterizing what I’ve said, please don’t bother responding to me. My comment above is not an ad hominem attack – if you want to respond to my analogy, substantively, go ahead – something tells me you’re not interested in honestly addressing whether my analogy is fair. So, again, if you’re just going to misread and lie about what I’ve said, just don’t bother responding.

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    13. Piotr Berman

      “My comment above is not an ad hominem attack…”

      let us see

      “are the equivalent of ultra-left chicken hawks, bleating incessantly about the ‘right of return’, ”

      So the first substantive argument is “chicken hawks”, which besides being insulting is of dubious applicability (it applies to real, as opposed to “propaganda”, wars), the second substantive argument is “bleating incessantly” etc. If this passes for substance …

      XYZ and Jazzy make a review of INEFFECTIVE strategies. It seems that there is no effective strategy, period. Israel will be picking bigger and bigger fights, and eventually either it will escape an utter defeat and have a chance to change its conduct, or there will be no such chance. In that case there will be enough heroic stories to survive next 2000 years in Diaspora. “Why are we sitting all hunched together” “To remember how we were sitting in bomb shelters”.

      Consider exceedingly minor and easy matter of allocating TV and radio frequencies. PA and Israel were supposed to coordinate. Israel simply refused to agree to “give” any frequencies to PA. So PA simply used some. Now Israel sent troops to confiscate broadcasting equipment. All healthily patriotic citizens approve and cheer. In most countries the governments have at least some inkling what a sane behavior is.

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    14. Shlomo Krol

      I think JStreet invited Ehud Olmert because there were reports that he came very close to concluding peace deal with the PA. As for him starting Lebanon and Gaza war… Lebanon war was started by Hizballah and Gaza war – by terrorist organizations which are in charge in Gaza.

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    15. Think of it this way: Olmert is going to J Street and to the Jerusalem Post Conference – but a month apart. At least there’ll be no problem over any double-billing for flights.

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    16. directrob

      As far as Olmert is concerned the Lebanon war was for me not about the IDF being unprepared. It was about creating horror for Lebanese civilians with as the icing on the cake the cluster ammunition in the final two days of the war.

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    17. Bill Pearlman

      sue away tovarich

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    18. directrob

      “ticks site:mondoweiss.net” 36 hits most innocent. I found one comparing Jews and ticks.

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    19. Shlomo Krol

      Directrob, I don’t think Olmert should be held responsible for the Lebanon war’s disastrous strategy, both from the point of view of the mass civilian fatalities and from the purely military point of view. I think, the military brass should be held responsible.

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    20. directrob

      Shlomo, if the military brass went wrong Olmert should have chosen different commanders or given them different commands. He is always to blame. If the IDF acted all on its own, without political control, he was even more to blame. He (and the army) should not have had a replay in Gaza.

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    21. XYZ

      Shlomo Krol-
      Who do you think appoints the military brass. Israel’s top officers are totally policitized and chosen not for professional ability but for political reliability.
      The Chief of Staff of the Lebanon War was Dan Halutz, from the Air Force, who was chosen by Sharon specifically because he knew nothing about running ground forces, which Sharon wanted to do himself should there be a war, and Halutz promised to show extra energy in throwing the Jews out of Gush Katif. Thus, is it any wonder that this war and the one that followed went the way they did?

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    22. 972 likes to pride itself on defending what it sees as the just cause of Palestinian Arabs against Israel. 972 consequently finds just about anything that Israel does to be an atrocity. Meanwhile, not too far to the northeast of Israel, the city of Homs, Syria, has been under siege by its own government for more than a month with more than a 1000 killed there by attacks consciously made on civilians. The situation in Syria is an urgent human rights situation, is it not? Why is it that Israelis and Westerners who claim to want to help “liberate” Arabs find themselves so often allied with the butchers of Arabs? In this context, have you seen the video of Asma Assad, wife of Bashar the Basher Assad, condemning Israel in a CNN interview for alleged offenses in the 2009 Gaza war? A blogger [I think he’s called Blackhawk] superimposed shots and film of the current atrocities in Homs on that interview in which Asma firmly condemns Israel for atrocities, etc. Didn’t Asma know that Bashar’s dad, Hafiz, slaughtered between 10,000 and 40,000 Syrian civilians in Hama in 1982? Doesn’t 972 know about that? Moreover, Bashar now is using his Hizbullah allies to help him kill Syrians in Homs.

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    23. Sof Maarav

      Um, Olmert isn’t currently listed as a speaker at the conference.

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