J Street Jive

As Eddie Murphy’s character Reggie Hammond shouted in 48 Hrs, “And I want the rest of you cowboys to know something, there’s a new sheriff in town. And his name is Reggie Hammond. So y’all be cool. Right on”, so did J Street burst on the scene proclaiming itself the “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.”  Holding its first national conference in Washington, D.C. from October 25 to 28 while basking in its new found role as the Obama Administration’s “blocking back” for a two-state solution, J Street and its adherers rejoiced in their arrival as high stakes Middle East policy “players”.

But we before anyone anoints J Street Shalom Sheriff, we must understand J Street‘s origins and its attempts to influence US policy.  

Let’s begin with an excerpt from J Street’s website:

For too long, the only voices politicians and policy makers have heard on American policy toward Israel and the Middle East have been from the far right. Neoconservatives, right-wing Jewish leaders and radical Christian Zionists have succeeded in imposing their narrow definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel” on American policy, undermining Israeli and American interests and squashing real debate about American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Adds Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami in the 2008 Year-end report “For too long, the loudest voices dominating American political debate on Israel and the Middle East have come from the far right.”

Really, I along with much greater voices like Hilary Clinton, Howard Berman, Steny Hoyer, Barney Frank, Dennis Ross, and the late Tom Lantos were highly engaged in the aforementioned debate yet can hardly be classified as right wing. Moreover, I favor a two-state solution with the caveat that any future Palestinian State be viable, sustainable and terror free. For J Street to engage in the kind of demagoguery to which it accuses others is the height of hypocrisy.

Moreover, Jews vote for Democratic candidates over Republicans at a ratio of about 4 to 1. Congressional support for Israel and the US –Israel Relationship has remained consistently strong for decades, with an uptick in support in the last decade even when control of Congress changed parties.  The Clinton Administration’s relationship with the Jewish State and its people provided security for Israel to take a chance for peace at Camp David, and Bill Clinton to this day remains highly popular in Israel. President Bush, after 911, also developed strong ties to Israel.

What really changed, and what J Street fails to grasp, is not domination by the “right wing” over US Middle East Policy, but the conclusion of bi-partisan policy makers and pro-Israel activists that the hoped for two-state solution could not be realized with a Palestinian community at varying levels unwilling to recognize Israel as a Jewish State but willing to condone if not support terror.

The right-wing mantra serves J Street well as a rallying point and fundraising tool but does disservice to the cause of conflict resolution. Even more troublesome, however, is J Street’s view, shared with National Security Advisor Jim Jones and  expressed by him at the “Driving Change, Securing Peace” Conference, that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the core of resolving most, if not all, of the Middle East’s ills, including Iran.  For it is reliance on this thinking which leads to unproductive US pressure on Israel and lack of accountability for other actors in the region.

J Street professes its distinct role as the antithesis to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby organization it seeks to neutralize, due to its alleged right-wing agenda.  Once again though, the issue is not one of right or left but whether an American organization should assert Israeli policy. AIPAC, like numerous other US based pro-Israel organizations such as ADL, AJC and The Israel Project, advocate for US but not Israeli policy. J Street does both, with potentially unforeseen and negative consequences.

For example, some of the most dangerous moments in the region occur when Israel’s neighbors perceive Israel as either weakened or boxed in by US or international pressure. Take the 2006 Israeli conflict with Hezbollah in which Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah initiated the conflict based on the strategic miscalculation that Israel would not forcefully respond to the IDF kidnappings assuming Israeli reluctance to endure international pressure for retaliating in Lebanon.  Nasrallah wrongly believed he would reveal an Israel unwilling to fight.

Hezbollah and possibly Palestinian terrorist groups renewed rocket fire from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel in recent days. No doubt these terrorists possess multiple motivations for these actions, but part of the timing is due to failure of recent peace-making efforts and Iranian nuclear discussions. To be very clear, I am by no means suggesting that J Street in any way seeks this result or desires Israel any harm. I am suggesting, however, that regardless of intention, pursuit of peace without the appropriate groundwork can have negative and dangerous consequences, particularly in the Middle East.

I am curious as to why, at least as far as I could tell, no one at the “Driving Change, Securing Peace” Conference condemned the recent rocket attacks or why the online conference participant interviews included a Palestinian woman criticizing Israel’s demolition policy but no one speaking of his or her experience in Sderot or other terrorist encounter.

I am also not suggesting that J Street does not have the right to exist or the freedom to lobby as it wishes. I do take issue with its murky and ever-changing definition of “pro-Israel” both in form and practice and, more importantly, any influence on US policy in the Middle East it may possess. The response instead should be activism based on an understanding that Middle East peace is possible when committed partners commit not just to the idea of peace, but to the hard details that often require sacrifice and political risk by all parties.

Finally, while I applaud General Jones’ comments at the Conference regarding Iran and the Goldstone Report, I caution the Obama Administration to be wary of any offense that includes J Street as its blocking back. Wildcat anyone?

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