Timeline: 1993 to the present
Historical Context: In April 1993, a Hamas terrorist carried out the first suicide bombing from the West Bank against Israeli targets. A Palestinian bystander and the bomber were killed.
On September 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chair Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords at a White House ceremony hosted by President Bill Clinton. Israel recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people, giving it limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced terrorism and other violence, and gave up claims to Israeli territory as defined by pre-1967 borders. Palestinian self-rule was to last for a five-year interim period during which “permanent status negotiations” would commence in order to reach a final status peace agreement. Harvard professor Herbert Kelman played a pivotal role in nurturing the dialogue that led to Oslo.
Brief Description: The idea for IPF began when a group of Jewish philanthropists and activists met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in March 1993 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Founding Executive Director Jonathan Jacoby formed IPF with a distinct political agenda: to build support for the peace efforts of PM Rabin and President Clinton among Jewish communal leaders through education and advocacy initiatives. IPF is a “grass-tops group,” a cross between a think-tank and an advocacy group.
IPF’s first public activity was an op-ed in the New York Times on September 13, 1993—the day that PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chair Yasser Arafat signed a Memorandum of Understanding (known as the Oslo Accord) on the White House lawn. IPF has since served as a centrist voice on Israel/Palestine, promoting a two-state solution and a strong, secure Israel. Over the years, IPF developed a policy component as well, advocating specific proposals to the administration. It met with every National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the Obama, Clinton, and Bush administrations.
For nearly 20 years, IPF has pursued a consistent program of making and influencing policy that encourages active diplomacy for a two-state resolution, with a particular focus on the Executive Branch. In an era where the two-state issue has generated fierce polarization on Capitol Hill and fractious debate in the American Jewish community, IPF prides itself on nuance and an evenhanded approach. IPF’s messages are crafted to build support for the notion that Israel benefits from the U.S. playing the role of facilitator and mediator.
In 1997, Project Nishma merged with Israel Policy Forum. The two groups attracted a similar type of supporter—one with money and political capital – but those drawn to IPF were more likely to be public in their support. While decidedly bipartisan, IPF had its greatest success under the Clinton administration, as their policies were closely aligned with the President’s, and many of its supporters had close ties to the administration.
In 2012, Advisory Council members include Jack Bendheim, Co-Founder of PAHC Holdings Corporation, philanthropist Charles Bronfman, HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson, eminent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, Mike Medavoy, co-founder of Orion Pictures and current CEO of Phoenix Pictures, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Activism Strategy: IPF’s strategy is to make recommendations for constructive U.S. leadership in Middle East peace diplomacy and to cultivate relations among prominent Jews with high-level access to the administration and other top policy makers so as to advance their advocacy agenda.
Membership/Chapters: IPF builds advocacy networks of mainstream, centrist, pragmatic Jewish leaders. While it has neither members nor chapters, IPF utilizes U.S. and Israeli Advisory Councils (made up of Israeli and American analysts as well as former government officials) to issue position papers and to communicate the IPF perspective to the media. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, is currently one of the highest profile representatives as a member of their Advisory Council.
Activities: IPF activities include public forums, written commentary that promotes pragmatic strategies for achieving peace, and the mobilization of key policy experts and community leaders to build support for those ideas in the U.S. and Israel. Historically, it has led biannual delegations to the Middle East featuring prominent political and policy leaders. IPF also contributes op-eds and other pieces to major publications in both Israel and the U.S.
From 1998 through 2009 M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s Director of Policy Analysis, wrote a popular weekly column called IPF Friday that was frequently reprinted in newspapers internationally.
IPF’s most important role, however, might be its behind the scenes political influence. The organization played a major role in convincing then-President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright to apply more pressure on PM Netanyahu for further territorial withdrawal, halting settlement activity, and concessions made to Arafat as part of the Wye Agreements. It sponsored a full-page ad in the Washington Post on October 15, 1998, the first day of the Wye talks, followed by intensive Congressional lobbying.
When Clinton and Rabin were both in power, IPF played a key role in encouraging AIPAC not to oppose the peace process. This was facilitated by a number of overlapping leaders in both organizations.
IPF also continued the practice started by Project Nishma of using polling to increase its influence. IPF conducted a 1998 survey, using President Clinton’s pollster, which found 84 percent of American Jews agreed that the administration should pressure both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to act more constructively and be more forthcoming in peace negotiations. These results were presented directly to President Clinton at a White House dinner.
IPF has also cultivated many contacts in Hollywood. In 1994 it organized a lunch for PM Rabin hosted by David Geffen; guests included Barbara Streisand, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas.
Each year, IPF provides a well-connected Jewish audience, built over years of carefully cultivated relationships, for its Leadership Event. It is used to support key figures who promote peacemaking efforts; many honorees have made significant policy statements at this annual event.
In one of his last acts as President, Bill Clinton outlined his guidelines for a Permanent Status Agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an IPF Gala dinner in 2001. He subsequently proposed these guidelines, which came to be known as the “Clinton Parameters,” to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in late 2000.
At the 2005 IPF dinner, Ehud Olmert, representing PM Ariel Sharon, made headlines when he stated, “We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. And I believe that this is not impossible”.
In 2005, IPF mobilized 27 major Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and both the Reform and Conservative movements to sign on to a New York Times ad supporting disengagement from Gaza as a step toward two states. They managed this at a time when the Conference of Presidents was reluctant to do so.
IPF has also issued a number of letters with high profile signers such as Sam Lewis, Ned Walker, and Bob Pelletreau, including a controversial and prescient letter written in 2008 urging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to find a way to bring Hamas into the peace process. The letter stated, “We support your actions encouraging Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or whichever interlocutor you deem appropriate, to determine Hamas’s willingness to establish a cease-fire and to help stabilize the current situation. We say this with the recognition that – as in the case of Israel’s indirect dealings with Hamas to free Gilad Schalit – no progress can be made if Hamas is totally excluded from the process.
An IPF letter released in July 2012 urged PM Netanyahu to reject the Levy Report legalizing West Bank settlements; signers included were philanthropists and businessmen Charles Bronfman, Stanley Gold and Lester Crown, former AIPAC head Tom Dine, Hebrew Union College president Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, President of the conservative-leaning Shalem Center in Jerusalem, former Jewish Agency Chairman Richard Pearlstone, and New York UJA Federation Campaign co-chair, Marcia Riklis.
“As strong advocates for Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish and democratic state’, the letter read, “we are deeply concerned about the recent findings of the government commission led by Supreme Court Jurist (Ret.) Edmund Levy. We fear that if approved, this report will place the two-state solution, and the prestige of Israel as a democratic member of the international community, in peril… At this moment, it is more critical than ever that Israel strengthen its claim in the international community that it is committed to a two-state vision, which is, in turn, central to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Contributions: IPF provides a high level, well-connected Jewish audience, built over years of carefully cultivated relationships. It plays a key role by initiating strategic outreach by and to major political actors and donors both privately and at public events featuring major Israeli stakeholders. Their public letters and position papers have been important in formulating American policy regarding the two-state solution.