Friday, March 27, 2009

J Street vs. Israel

P. David Hornik | 3/27/2009

Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal American Jewish organization J Street, is campaigning to delegitimize the incoming Israeli government even before it takes office. In an op-ed in the liberal American Jewish weekly Forward, Ben-Ami writes that “Benjamin Netanyahu’s imminent return to the prime minister’s office is likely to force a long-overdue discussion in the American Jewish community over what it really means to be ‘pro-Israel.’… The second coming of Netanyahu may…bring us to a fork in the road. On this side of the ocean, American Jews just helped usher in a new progressive era—with 78% of us voting to elect Barack Obama president…. At the same time, Israeli politics has taken a hard turn rightward. The incoming prime minister cannot bring himself to support a two-state solution….”

And not only that, but “the face of Israel to the world may well be [presumptive foreign minister] Avigdor Lieberman, whose party rode to third place in last month’s election on a platform explicitly rejecting the very democratic values that have bound together the Jewish people on both sides of the ocean for three generations.”

What to do, then, about “an Israeli government built on rejecting peace, with coalition members who show little regard for democratic values…”? Ben-Ami says that “for organizations at the heart of the established Jewish community, the best strategy would be to welcome and encourage an open and respectful airing of differences of opinion over policies and strategies and on what it means to be pro-Israel.”

Just about simultaneously, J Street has commissioned and released a poll that shows most American Jews taking—dovish, J Street-type positions.

Asked if they “support or oppose the United States playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” 88% of the sample of 800 American Jews responded favorably (J Street’s homepage says that “We support strong American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts”). Asked whether, “if [Hamas and the Palestinian Authority] reach an agreement [to form a unified government], would you support or oppose the United States working with that unity government to achieve a peace agreement with Israel?”—69% of the sample says yes (J Street-commissioned poll analyst Jim Gerstein says approvingly that this result “indicates the openness of American Jews to break controversial taboos”).

The poll respondents were also told that “Avigdor Lieberman…has previously called for the execution of Arab members of Israel’s parliament who met with Hamas and [his] main campaign message called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state in order to prevent their citizenship from being revoked,” and were asked “Do you support or oppose these positions?” The nays won, 69%-31%. Asked, then, “If Avigdor Lieberman becomes a senior member of the Israeli cabinet and refuses to change his positions on Arab citizens of Israel, how would this affect your feelings toward Israel?”—32% said it would weaken their connection to Israel (10% said it would strengthen it, and the rest said it would have no effect).

To begin with, if Ben-Ami and J Street want to engage in “an open and respectful airing of differences of opinion,” they can begin by getting their facts straight. Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party have not “called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state” but for all citizens of Israel—Arab, Jewish, and other—to do so. It’s a crucial difference; the former, mendacious, J Street version, as presented to the subjects of the poll, indeed sounds discriminatory and sinister; the actual Yisrael Beiteinu proposal—which, in any case, has practically no chance of becoming the new government’s policy—is nondiscriminatory and legitimate.

Although Lieberman does, indeed, have a record as a loose cannon, Tzvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Egypt, and other countries, takes a much more balanced view and notes that “should [Lieberman] become foreign minister, he will have to deal with reality”—and that even the Egyptians, toward whom Lieberman has directed harsh words in the past, have expressed willingness to work with him as foreign minister. What, indeed, does it “really mean to be ‘pro-Israel’”?—does it mean giving a new Israeli cabinet minister a chance, or seeking to demonize him irretrievably and misrepresenting his positions even before he assumes the post?

But Ben-Ami and his outfit, in their Washington offices, have already decided what’s good for Israel, and that includes the “two-state solution”—so much so that an incoming prime minister who “cannot bring himself to support” it can, along with his whole government, be branded as “rejecting peace.” Somehow the vaunted democratic disposition isn’t in evidence here; couldn’t someone—particularly after the experiences with the withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza—legitimately oppose setting up a sovereign Arab state in the West Bank precisely because it would threaten peace? Not for J Street; if Israeli leaders take that view, it’s time for a rethink of the whole Israeli-American Jewish relationship.

Never mind that, recently, Israeli figures a good deal less right-wing than Netanyahu—in fact, not right-wing at all—have also come out against the West Bank Palestinian state. There’s former National Security Council chairman Giora Eiland, who calls the two-state solution a “big illusion” and says, “The two-state formula is not the only solution. In fact it’s a bad solution, and unlikely ever to be implemented.” Or former foreign minister and Oslo supporter Shlomo Ben-Ami, who says, “I don’t dismiss the two-state idea, but the idea [of Palestinian and Israeli states] is near its end. Instead, I see a Jewish state and a Jordanian state…. Our problem is that the Palestinian national movement is a dangerous volcano.” Enemies of peace, no doubt, worthy of being shunned.

But Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street’s central concern is not really peace or democracy but their fixation on the creation of a Palestinian state. And it’s because their championing of such a state is rigid and intolerant that their main goal as a lobby—like their sister organizations the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom—is to get the U.S. administration to push Israel (the euphemism is “active involvement”) into agreeing to such a state even, if necessary, against Israel’s will—and even, if necessary, with Hamas thrown into the bargain as “peace partner.” That this could make them enemies of both democracy and peace doesn’t cross the minds of these unfathomably arrogant people. P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at He can be reached at

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