J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s annual national conference in Washington on April 15, 2018. (Courtesy, J Street)
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s annual national conference in Washington on April 15, 2018. (Courtesy, J Street)
Interview'You grow when you're in full-on opposition'

Has J Street become US Jewry’s Democratic kingmaker on Israel?

Left-leaning group’s founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami talks with The Times of Israel about its prominent role in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary

WASHINGTON — By Jeremy Ben-Ami’s own admission, J Street was widely viewed as radical 10 years ago. Now, the Mideast advocacy group is one of the American left’s most influential organizations — if not the most influential — when it comes to Israel.

Case in point: Five of the Democrats running for president attended its annual conference last year, including former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who finished in the top two slots in the fraught and technologically challenged February 3 Iowa caucus and February 11 New Hampshire primary.

Other leading candidates, such as former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, addressed the confab via video.

None of these candidates attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2019 conference. It’s not clear how many will attend this year’s; a source with the pro-Israel lobby said it was still “finalizing” its speakers for the confab and would be announcing them over the few days.

Still, no other Israel-related gathering over the last year and a half has garnered as much attention from the 2020 Democrats. J Street, it appears, is playing an outsized role in setting the agenda on Middle East policy in this year’s Democratic primary.

As Ben-Ami explained in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, “We hold our conferences as a way to project political power.”

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at the J Street 2017 National Conference at the Washington Convention Center, February 27, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Now, since US President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited proposal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that issue may gain even more urgency.

Under the Trump plan — which allocates roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, including all of the existing settlements, to Israel — Jerusalem has been given the green light to annex West Bank settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested he would move forward with annexation after Israel’s March 2 election.

In a statement last week, Ben-Ami argued that Trump’s team designed the proposal to advance the Israeli right agenda. “It is absolutely clear that the ‘plan’ released by the Trump administration stands zero chance of serving as the basis for renewed diplomacy to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,”  he said.

US President Donald Trump, left, listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Instead,” he insisted, “it is the logical culmination of repeated bad-faith steps this administration has taken to validate the agenda of the Israeli right, prevent the achievement of a viable, negotiated two-state solution and ensure that Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank becomes permanent.”

It’s the politics, stupid

Part of what makes J Street unique among US foreign policy groups is that, while most tend to be policy oriented, J Street is an unapologetic political operation that involves itself in the rough-and-tumble of lobbying and advocacy on Capitol Hill. 

One of Ben-Ami’s key realizations upon J Street’s founding, he said, was that a “political problem” was getting in the way of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, not a policy one.

For decades, there was effectively no counterweight to AIPAC, which lobbies on behalf of the Israeli government’s positions in Washington. As a consequence, there was only a domestic drawback for lawmakers who criticized the Israeli government, and no reward.

But as Jerusalem veers further to the right under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben-Ami emphasized, there is a larger number of Americans who want a different kind of advocacy vis-a-vis Israel.

Additionally, Netanyahu’s adversarial relationship with former US president Barack Obama — and chummy relationship with Trump — has alienated an increasing number of American Jews, who tend to vote Democratic.

US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

That alienation, in part, created an opening for J Street to emerge from the sidelines and take center stage. A growing number of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans, Ben-Ami said, want to be able to support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democracy, but not enable the Netanyahu government.

A look at the 2020 primary shows that Democratic voters seem to support that point of view.

The candidates who have spoken the most against the current Israeli government — Sanders and Buttigieg — are among those polling the best.

Sanders has openly considered cutting American aid to Israel to pressure the nation to roll back its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians, and improve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Buttigieg said he would consider using American aid to “leverage” Israel to change its policies. And Warren has said she would pressure Israel to end the occupation.

Biden has made clear he wouldn’t touch aid to Israel — he called the idea “outrageous” — but said the country was “on the wrong trajectory” under Netanyahu’s rein.

All in all, Ben-Ami believes the nuanced positions on Israel that the candidates have staked out represent a validation for J Street.

“It is a truism that nature abhors a vacuum,” he said of the organization’s place in American politics. “And this was a really big vacuum.”

Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview, which took place before Trump released his Mideast peace plan. 

The Times of Israel: Have you been in touch with the Democratic candidates? What is their level of energy and interest in prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if they get elected? 

Jeremy Ben-Ami: We have been really engaged with the candidates since January of last year. We made this a priority coming right out of the 2018 election, and we said the number one goal for us is to ensure that we are really in the center of the discussion on these issues in the Democratic Party.

We have had personal engagement with a large majority of the candidates. If we haven’t worked with them directly, we’ve worked with their team. We had five of them at the conference, with videos from others. We’ve been very actively involved. We’ve sent them debate prep questions before every debate. So, the short answer is “yes.”

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a gun safety forum Wednesday, October 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s our perspective that J Street’s take on these issues is the best place for a Democratic candidate to come out. There are more traditional voices that are scared about being critical in a political context of what the Israeli government is doing. Then there are new voices that are much harsher and more critical and not particularly balanced. In a way, they’re much more pro-Palestinian than balanced.

Our case to the candidates is that, politically speaking, the J Street line in 2020 is the place that will be best — both offensively and defensively — for you on these issues.

How are you making that argument politically? How are you making the case that the J Street line is a political winner?

It’s not that it’s a winner. It’s, how do you navigate? It’s less that we’re urging them to make this a top-tier issue in their stump speech. It’s more, how do you navigate when you’ve got people coming at you from all sides?

How do you navigate when you’ve got people coming at you from all sides?

Polling is obviously very helpful to show them where the majority of Democratic primary voters are at on these issues. We did a poll in May where we said: If you are given the choice between a candidate who is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, or seeking to have a balance between two sides, who would you choose? The overwhelming majority of Democrats and Americans want the balance. So much of the old polling was, are you more supportive of Israel? Are you more supportive of the Palestinians? You sort of had to choose a side. It turns out, it was a really bad question.

That’s at the core of our case. You can talk about security and of being a friend of the state of Israel — the people of Israel want to make sure they are safe — and you can also talk about Palestinian rights. You can say the Palestinians should have freedom and self-determination as a state, and that Israel should have security. Neither is going to have what they want if the other doesn’t get what they want.

Do you identify the candidates, publicly at least, who are closest to the J Street line? 

No, we feel pretty comfortable with the field as a whole. Some of them have been a little bit more explicit in the things they are calling for.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden addresses a gathering during a campaign stop in Exeter, New Hampshire, Monday, December 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Biden was part of the Obama team and spoke to our conference twice. He’s been very clear that there are things that Netanyahu and the government have done over the years that are really unhelpful.

The other top-tier candidates — Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg — they’re all newer in a sense to the issue. They haven’t had jobs and roles so they’ve had to say more in the last six to nine months, but every time they’ve spoken, it’s been really in line with J Street.

Were you surprised that Amy Klobuchar came to your conference? She tends to be more traditionally supportive of Israel, she’s close to AIPAC. But she felt like she had to come talk to you. That seemed to be significant.

I think that the Iran nuclear deal was a big moment for somebody like her. When you had the president and 90 percent of the Democratic Party lined up for this agreement, and you had AIPAC really hitting hard against, I think people really saw J Street’s place.

We’re the camp that aligns with pro-diplomacy, pro-two states, wanting to find diplomatic solutions to these complex Middle East problems

It became clear that during this break between these two camps on these issues: We’re the camp that aligns with pro-diplomacy, pro-two states, wanting to find diplomatic solutions to these complex Middle East problems. And that’s where people like Amy Klobuchar want to be.

The debates around the Iran nuclear agreement — and Netanyahu’s behavior — had a huge impact on the thinking of a lot of Democrats on this issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

So was that really the moment that you solidified your place among the Democratic mainstream — the fight around the Iran deal? 

Yeah, I think that was a real seminal moment in the whole structure of this issue. Other things had happened. The Israeli government over the course of the last decade of J Street’s existence has just gone so far off to the right. AIPAC and many Jewish organizations have to follow them in a sense, because to be uncritical is part of the DNA.

As the Israeli government has become more and more pro-settler, anti-democracy and questionable in the way it treats minorities, peace, all these issues, AIPAC ends up in that camp. It makes the space for us that much more needed.

Then, there’s Trump: His embrace of Bibi and Bibi’s embrace of Trump. There’s been this sense that you’re getting a package deal between them.

I also think it was the emergence of a serious left. We were viewed as radical when we started — simply for saying you can support Israel but you don’t have to support the government. It’s not that radical of a concept really.

We were viewed as radical when we started — simply for saying you can support Israel but you don’t have to support the government

What is radical is to say, “I question whether there really should be an Israel. I do really favor the Palestinians over Israel.” There’s a much more vibrant pro-Palestinian left now than there was 10 years ago. So it’s clear that we’re not that. So I think all of those developments together have solidified the position that we hold.

After the J Street conference, I heard a lot of people affiliated with J Street say that the organization’s position on conditioning aid to Israel was misunderstood. Can you explain how?

The distinction is the wording between “conditioning” and “restricting.” If you put a condition on providing something to someone, then you’re not providing it until they do X, Y and Z, or they fulfill some set of pre-actions that they need to take. Restrictions mean you’re going to give them the money, but there are certain things they can’t do with it. We’re saying, the question that should be on the table is, what should Israel be doing with the $3.8 billion?

Israeli police secure a bulldozer demolishing structures at the Bedouin village of Abu Nuwar, east of Jerusalem in the West Bank on July 4, 2018. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

We’re not saying, “Don’t give them the $3.8 billion unless they change course,” or anything like that. What we’re saying is, the time has come to start asking: What is the $3.8 billion being used for? We’re very much in the camp of say, Buttigieg, who says this isn’t a blank check. We’re not just handing you $3.8 billion and saying “do what you want with it.”

The $3.8 billion is because you’re in a really bad neighborhood, there are very serious security threats, and we want you to do things that make you more secure and not less.

If you’re building settlements and roads and using the equipment to demolish villages and houses, you’re making yourself less secure. And we don’t want our aid to be used that way. We’re not saying that we’re not going to give them the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], or that the United States is backing away from its commitment to your security.

We are for aid to Israel and living up to the MOU, but we also need to ask what the money’s being used for. And we never do that and we should

In fact, I testified in front of Congress that the United State should provide this aid. We support codifying the MOU in legislation. So we are for aid to Israel and living up to the MOU, but we also need to ask what the money’s being used for. And we never do that and we should.

What happens when you tell Israel it can’t do something, and then it does it anyway?

Well, the first question is, are we even asking for a report about where exactly our money is going? There is no transparency. Congress, at a minimum, should start asking questions.

The $3.8 billion should be put into an account and as Israel spends money out of it, it should report back to us on what it’s buying. If it’s buying the bulldozers out of the account that are knocking down Palestinian homes in Area C, that doesn’t seem like a really great use of American taxpayer dollars. If it’s using it to buy an air defense system, then that is an appropriate use.

That has nothing to do with occupation. Our money should be going to defend the State of Israel from the security threats around it and not to protect the settlers and disenfranchise the Palestinians, and not to deepen the occupation.

Some would argue that the money is fungible. If you give it to them, it still frees up money to be spent elsewhere.

If you put it in its own account and track every dollar, at least that set of dollars is not going to do these things. That’s our money, and we’re giving it for a reason. And that particularly money should go to what we intended for it to go for.

Let’s say Trump wins in 2020, Netanyahu maintains his grip on power, and then follows through on his pledge to annex the West Bank settlements. What would come next for J Street if that happens? Would that kill the liberal Zionist dream?

The thing that J Street has seen in these three years is that you grow when you’re in full-on opposition. The worse things get, the more important it is to say these aren’t our values and this isn’t in our interests.

Our role is 10 times more important if there’s a Trump-Bibi redux in the 2020s — God forbid — than if there’s Gantz and Biden and they’re trying to figure it out, that’s much less urgent.

But could annexation of the settlements really be reversed? What’s the threshold for when you can’t go back?

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

My line is always that every single problem being created is being created by human beings. So everything can be undone by human beings, whether it’s a road or a fence or a building. If you’re Ariel Sharon in 2030 or 2040, and you come into office and say, “F*ck it, I need to get out, and we’re going to take 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 settlers out.” You just do it, right? You take a bulldozer and you move the fence. There’s no reason why these physical obstacles can’t be overcome. The only issue is political will.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned institutionally over the last 10 years? 

When we first started, we were pretty narrow — so focused on solving the conflict now. And that wasn’t possible, and it’s certainly not possible now. What we actually realized was: If you’re fighting for the principles and not the specific policy solution, that’s actually more important. The principle of diplomacy. The principle of undoing occupation. The principle of our values. That’s really what’s at stake.

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