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.