J Street president and founder Jeremy Ben-Ami was not among the hundreds of guests invited to attend last week’s AIPAC policy conference for free. Instead, the leader of the self-described “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby took in the key speeches from a laptop in his Washington, DC, office. These days Ben-Ami and his staff are spending a lot of time at the office as they prepare for J Street’s annual conference at the end of the month.

The Times of Israel’s Washington correspondent, Ari Ben Goldberg (a former AIPAC spokesperson), sat down with Ben-Ami following the AIPAC conference and Netanyahu’s high-stakes visit to Washington, at the height of the Israel-Gaza flare-up.

Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: J Street courtesy)

Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: J Street courtesy)

Before I ask about the busy diplomatic week that was, I want to ask about your reaction to what’s taking place in Gaza right now.

Well, every time you see rockets out of Gaza, it’s horrible. I spent a lot of time in Sderot and for these kids to spend time in shelters and to live under that threat is horrible. Our hearts go out to the people living under that cloud all across Israel. I hope that the situation can be brought under control and that the current round of violence can be put to an end. I’m also pleased to see the successes of the Iron Dome system.

You’ve said that a military solution is not the answer to prevent these periodic outbreaks of violence.

We believe this cycle of violence will only be eliminated, or brought to a minimum, with the resolution of the underlying conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people. It’s deeply worrying that, at any time, one of these cycles could inadvertently spin out of control, especially given all the tension with Iran these days, so you don’t want to see these flare-ups. Although a two-state solution wouldn’t eliminate violence, it would minimize it. To us, that’s the ultimate way to resolve this.

Moving to last week’s AIPAC conference, what did you think of President Obama’s speech?

The president did a spectacular job of walking a careful tightrope. On the one hand, he made it absolutely clear that the US will have no tolerance for the Iranian development of a nuclear weapon; that this is the policy of the US and this is a president who means what he says. He was extremely firm and there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that this is a very serious commitment.

On the other hand, he did a very effective job of pushing back against those who are at the gate, charging forward, wanting military action now. Obama said, no, the time is not right, we have time for sanctions, international pressure and diplomacy to work. That message also came across loud and clear and was a real rebuke to some of the presidential candidates who are loosely throwing around threats of military action.

‘It was also a wise word of caution to some of my brethren in the pro-Israel community who are talking too loosely and using too much bluster around the use of military force’

It was also a wise word of caution to some of my brethren in the pro-Israel community who are talking too loosely and using too much bluster around the use of military force, which shouldn’t be a casual thing.

President Obama stopped short of saying it is US policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons “capability.” In the House and Senate, there are bi-partisan bills urging the administration to make it US policy to oppose Iran from achieving the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Does J Street support this?

No, we’re very much supportive of the way the president defines the line and we worry about the definition of “capability.” The mere existence in someone’s mind of the knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon could be considered having the capability. By that definition, you could argue that we’re past that threshold already. They have the knowledge, so they have the capability. The question is, will they actually do it? The president said we have time before we actually see that’s where they’re headed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu invoked the Holocaust to emphasize his belief that the Jewish state is facing the threat of annihilation at the hands of a nuclear-armed Iran. Your reaction?

‘The notion that this is 1938, as if we’re seeing Iran develop a specific plan for the elimination of the Jewish people, is rhetoric that’s over the top’

I agree with Yehuda Bauer, the pre-eminent Holocaust scholar of the last couple of generations, who wrote in Haaretz this week that “Iran is not Auschwitz.” It’s so important to be rational and address these kinds of really dangerous situations with the appropriate level of analysis and fact.

The notion that this is 1938, as if we’re seeing Iran develop a specific plan for the elimination of the Jewish people, is rhetoric that’s over the top. It whips folks into a bit of a frenzy when there are very serious threats that have to be dealt with.

It is not the case that every single threat is the equivalent of 1938. I think it’s a mistake that clouds the serious discussion that needs to be heard. There’s no serious disagreement anywhere about whether or not there’s a threat and a problem from Iran, the question is what to do about it.

Do you think Israel will strike Iran unilaterally?

I have no idea. I think it’s a complete guessing game and people who say they are convinced one way or another can’t really know. Only the person himself would know and I don’t believe even he [Netanyahu] has made a decision on what he’s going to do. It’s all speculation and I can’t add anything to it.

Former AIPAC spokesperson Josh Block, who is now with the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy last week called, “How AIPAC Beat J Street?” Did you see that?

Yes, I did.

How do you respond to Block’s description of you as a “confrontation cheerleader,” insofar as you have taken positions critical of Israel and at odds with what he calls the “mainstream pro-Israel community?”

The difference between J Street and AIPAC is that we were created to give voice to that part of the Jewish community who believes Israel’s survival depends on a two-state solution. We are prescriptive about what we think is absolutely essential to Israel’s survival. Now, our prescriptions happen to coincide with Israelis like President Shimon Peres, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and many opposition politicians. Our prescription isn’t that far off from what other “medical personnel” are prescribing. The diagnosis is the same. Israel has a terminal problem.

So you have no problem criticizing democratically elected Israeli leaders and political parties?

‘The Jewish state is a thriving, strong, powerful nation. It can handle within the family some argumentation’

No. If we believe the government of Israel has taken an action that turns Israel away from the direction of a Jewish and democratic state, we will criticize that action, absolutely. And that is a fundamental difference from AIPAC and a fundamental change in the way in which this community operates.

It’s the year 2012, Israel is going to be 64 years old and the Jewish state is a thriving, strong, powerful nation. It can handle within the family some argumentation, debate, and discussion.

But you and your supporters are not citizens of Israel. It can be argued that you’re disrespecting the democratic process of the sovereign state of Israel.

No, we’re not citizens of Israel, but we are citizens of this country and what we do primarily is lobby the American government and politicians and let them know that not everybody here necessarily agrees with what’s going on over there. And that’s an important part of the democratic process of this country.

In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said explicitly that Israel is, in fact, the state of all the Jewish people. We don’t argue that we should have a vote or a full share, but we have a share.

‘It’s not much of a relationship if all Israel wants from us is to send our money, our kids, and our unquestioning love to Israel’

It’s not much of a relationship if all Israel wants from us is to send our money, our kids, and our unquestioning love to Israel. That’s not a real relationship. We’ll send you those things, but you’re also going to get an earful. That’s a good Jewish family, right?

J Street’s annual conference will take place March 24-27 in Washington, DC.