Off the Cuff: Lara Friedman, former foreign service officer and director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now

Lara Friedman, director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now and a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Jonathan Lewis

Lara Friedman, director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now and a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Rachel Weinstein, News Editor

Can you first talk about Americans for Peace Now?

Americans for Peace Now is the American sister organization of Shalom Achshav, which translates to “peace now” and is an Israeli grassroots movement. My organization developed in the early ’80s as a fundraising arm for Peace Now in Israel and over time developed into its own organization. So we mirror, in a way, Peace Now. Their mission is to educate Israelis on peace and to mobilize Israelis to action and to press their government to action. Our mission is to educate Americans — mostly American Jews, but not exclusively — and we want to mobilize them to action to press our government to take on policies that we think are best for Israel.

What specific actions does your organization take to advocate for policy and education?

We have been on the forefront of calling for two states, as well as our partner organization in Israel. We have been the leading voice, for instance, on settlements. It’s very interesting that if you look at the arc of history, the positions that we were taking 10 — 15 years ago were outlier positions. People forget that at the time of the start of the peace process, one could not say “Palestinian State,” and it was deemed a “forbidden word.” We have been pushing for two states. We have been pushing for two capitals, with a Palestinian capital and an Israeli capital, in Jerusalem and we have been saying since the beginning of the settlement movement that the settlements are bad for Israel and bad for Israel’s future. They have all become very mainstream positions, and now we are pushing for policies that will promote these positions.

How does the change in the public’s perception of the conflict and the deterioration of polarized opinions change your organization’s initiatives?

That’s a really good question, and I think it’s not just how it affects our organization, it’s how it affects the issue. On the one hand, it’s an incredible feat to have all of these principles more or less adopted as the mainstream view. If you think about years ago, when Hamas was elected into the parliament and the Quartet put down these conditions for Hamas to be considered a party that could come to the table, the conditions were basically accepting the two-state solution, forswearing violence and accepting Israel. Those were more or less the core of the peace movement, so that’s extraordinary. I don’t think it’s something that can easily be rolled back, so that’s very good, and it sort of gives you the direction things have to go in. On the other hand, the part that I think is somewhat troubling is that over the years, almost everyone now says that they accept the two-state solution. But a lot of people are saying that, and they are stripping it of meaning. If what you mean when you say “I accept the two-state solution” is accepting a solution in which the Palestinians end up with a disjointed territory, which is not contiguous, which doesn’t have access to Jerusalem, which doesn’t have control over its borders, what you’re really saying is that you don’t support a two-state solution, because no party is ever going to accept that. I think that really has become a problem, because for a lot of the world, it’s now really [about] reciting the mantra of “I accept the two-state solution” and not recognizing what that means in terms of policies. You cannot support the two-state solution and also say, “But I don’t support a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.” You cannot support a two-state solution and not also support a Palestine that has contiguous territory and a viable political and economic foundation.

What peace policy is your organization advocating for?

There are three pieces of it. We spend a lot of our energy educating. We are seen widely, and I think correctly, as the authority on the settlement issue, and settlements are the issue, to a great extent. What we’re debating about largely is the disposition of land, and settlements are about trying to predetermine the predisposition of land. So settlements are the issue in many ways. We’re educating constantly, along with our colleagues in Israel who are on the ground doing the legwork, putting themselves in danger, and we are getting the information out and making sure people understand. And we are then taking that education, and along with J Street on the scene — which is an amazing thing that has developed in recent years — we are seeking to really change the public discourse and let policy makers in Congress and the White House understand that there is broad support for U.S. policies that will get us to peace.

Would you say that you have more faith in a resolution now than you did 20 years ago?

No. I mean, if someone asked me if I wanted peace to happen right now, I would say that I would have liked peace to happen 20 years ago. I think it would be easier if it happened 20 years ago, both politically and in terms of facts on the ground. I think every day we wait it gets harder. In terms of my faith in the final outcome being a two-state solution, that hasn’t changed because there is no other solution. Your alternative to a two-state solution is continued fighting until people come back to the table because they don’t want to fight anymore. When we talk now about the window closing on the two-state solution, what we’re talking about is that you look at the ground and say, “If there were the political will to reach agreement today, it could be implemented on the ground and we could have two states.” If we wait much longer, even if the political will is there, we will have to undo so much more. That doesn’t mean it goes away, and the window closing on the two-state solution doesn’t mean we have another option. It just means we have to wait until the parties decide again that this is the only solution. There are folks on both sides, on the Israeli and Palestinian side and in the U.S., who want a zero-sum solution and who are happy to see this thing drag out, either hoping that God will work it out in their benefit, or something else will happen and change the ground. But I think for those of us who work on this issue, including my colleagues at J Street, that that is an intolerable way of looking at it, because we love people on both sides and care deeply about the future of Israel.

Interview Courtesy of J Street U Oberlin