A Discussion with J Street (Part II): Why all the controversy?
This piece is the second part of a series of articles exploring the relationship of American Jews with Israel, with a special focus on J Street. The remainder of the series will be published here in the coming days.
Since its inception, J Street has been labeled as controversial and its place within the “tent” of American Jewry constantly questioned. But the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” American political lobby promotes and reflects the same views and policies of 30 percent of Israel’s Knesset.
J Street and Israeli political parties are strikingly similar and sometimes indistinguishable. Regarding the peace process, J Street’s policy goals are almost identical to those of Kadima, Labor and Meretz.
Kadima, Israel’s centrist political party, like J Street, was founded to advance a single issue. Though Kadima was initially formed to promote evacuation of settlements and withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, its leaders have been avowed supporters of the two-state solution.
The Labor and Meretz parties too have nearly identical stances to those of J Street vis-à-vis the Palestinian conflict – a negotiated two-state solution. Even Hadash, despite being a self-described non-Zionist party, prescribes a two-state solution.
But J Street is not an Israeli political movement; it is an American lobbying organization.
In a conversation last month on the sidelines of the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, J Street Founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami discussed the role of his organization in Israeli politics. Overall, the impression he gave was that while J Street may prefer some Israeli political parties and politicians over others, its respect for Israeli democracy is stronger than any will to affect the country’s domestic politics.
Asked if he believes the current Israeli government is willing or capable of making peace with the Palestinians, Ben-Ami said, “If it isn’t, then I hope that there will be a moment of truth for the Israeli people.”
“If this government decides it’s not going to [make peace], then let the Israeli people decide,” he added, noting what the leadership in opposition parties like Kadima say of the peace process: “We have to do this. We have to do this now.”
But the opposition parties in Israel are not in power, and their ability to push forward any agenda is essentially nil. Fully aware that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in fact put into office by Israeli voters, Ben-Ami conceded, “Maybe the Israeli people will decide they don’t want to give up the land and maybe they [feel that doing so] isn’t critical.” That, he said, “is a political decision for the people of Israel.”
In addition to not involving itself in Israel’s internal politics, J Street also opposes outside pressure on the Jewish state to make peace. J Street, Ben-Ami said, also opposes the Palestinian bid for recognition of statehood in the United Nations this September. He described a scenario where Palestinians’ false expectations and ultimate let-down upon declaration of statehood could lead to renewed violence.
“We are not in favor of UN action, we’re trying to put it off,” he explained. “We’re trying to avoid [it] and we’re trying to advocate for the US to do things that will avoid [Palestinian statehood recognition] coming to a UN vote.”
Also opposing a declaration of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations is another, more important political entity and apparent J Street policy ally, the Obama administration.
In fact, J Street’s positions are strikingly similar to those of every US administration since George H.W. Bush convened the Madrid Conference in 1991. Relating the organization’s positions to those of the US government is the most logical comparison considering J Street is first and foremost an American political lobby; many of its policy statements focus on the US national interest in reaching a two-state settlement.
Ben-Ami described the US interest in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace as “hugely important.”
Echoing President Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech, Ben-Ami noted that increasingly, the views of the Arab street are, and will increasingly be accounted for in the formulation of Arab foreign policy, especially concerning Israel. “Right now, the [Arab] people are quite unhappy about the plight of the Palestinian people,” Ben-Ami explained.
“So until there is change, until there is a peace deal, until the Palestinians have their freedom – the state,” he said, “the Arab world, I think, is going to increasingly feel that it’s an impediment to its relations with the United States and other countries if that problem isn’t solved.
“It’s hugely in the interests of the United States for this conflict to be ended in a reasonable two-state solution that addresses the interests of the Israelis in terms of security and the Palestinians in the terms of their freedom.
“That’s what we stand for, what the American government as a matter of American national interest should be actively promoting and pursuing that policy.”
So why is J Street so controversial? Maybe it’s just the new kid on the block.