Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Pages 58-59
Well-Attended Iowa Conference on U.S. Policy in Palestine-Israel
An Oct. 14-15 conference on "Palestine-Israel: Engaging Faith Communities in Pursuit of a Just Peace," held at Our Lady's Immaculate Heart (OLIH) Catholic Church in Ankeny, IA, attracted a large and diverse audience over the weekend. Organized by Joe Aossey of Cedar Rapids and Kathleen McQuillen and Samar Sarhan of American Friends Service Committee's Iowa Middle East Peace Education Project, the event featured 16 speakers and workshop leaders from across the U.S. and the Middle East.
Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, delivered one of two keynote addresses. "The Arab Spring has challenged the existing order in ways that nothing else in recent history has," she said. "We have seen enormous change in how people think about these issues, in how people talk about these issues, and that is the starting point for change in policy."
Bennis credited two books, Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby, with breaking the longstanding taboo against serious criticism of Israeli policy. "They were able to do that because the discourse was already beginning to change," she said, "and they were able to push that change much further."
During Israel's 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, polls showed for the first time that American opinion was evenly split on the question of whether Israel or the Palestinians were responsible for the violence, Bennis pointed out.
"The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign...has seen enormous victories," she added.
Bennis compared the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement to the Palestinian Intifada, noting that the word "intifada" means to shake up or shake off. "It's shaking up our assumptions about what ordinary people can do," she said.
"Israel is more isolated than ever, not because people don't think Israel has a right to exist...Countries don't have rights; people have rights. Peoples have rights to exist; Israelis like everyone else have a right to exist in safety and security… Israel is losing the war for legitimacy because of its policies of apartheid, forced separation, ethnic cleansing, because of its policy of occupation, because of its policy of denying the right of return to refugees," stated Bennis.
"The U.S. and Israel are losing the moral high ground," she added. "It is no longer political suicide to criticize Israeli policy, but the politicians don't know that.
"Our job is to make clear to members of Congress, the president, and the Senate, and the city councilors, and the governors, and the mayors, and the county boards of supervisors, and the university administrations that it is now political suicide to support Israeli policies, and if they continue to do so, that's when they will lose their positions, their power," said Bennis to sustained applause.
"Political discourse has changed and it is no longer on their side. They are the ones who are out of step with the public, not us. That is what has changed, and our job is to figure out how to galvanize the new public opinion and make it operative. It means reclaiming our democracy," Bennis concluded.
Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian freelance journalist, author, political analyst and mother of two from Gaza, presented the Oct. 15 keynote address. Plenary and workshop presenters included Yaser Abu Dagga, Jennifer Bing, Dr. Jeremy Brigham, Mohammed Fahmy, Mahmoud Hamad, Remi Kanazi, Liz Knott, Pat Minor, Rachel Orville, Lynn Pollack, Josh Ruebner, Ron Stone, Rev. Don Wagner and Rev. David Wildman.