When old high school friends, who are now on opposite sides of the Israeli political spectrum, get together, sparks can fly. That was the case at a debate on January 26 between left-leaning J Street found Jeremy Ben-Ami versus conservative think tank JCPA’s Dan Diker.
The duo appeared live at a joint ToI/Tel Aviv Salon event, in a conversation nominally under the banner of “Securing the Future of the US-Israel Relationship,” that was moderated by The Times of Israel’s Jewish World editor Amanda Borschel-Dan.
In the lively wide-ranging discussion, Ben-Ami and Diker — who both attended New York City’s prestigious Collegiate School in the 1970s — touched on aspects of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan on the evening before it was unveiled, as well as the complicated relationship US Jews find themselves in today with Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After a coin toss, both candidates began the live event with five-minute remarks presenting their platforms.
To Diker, the Trump administration has granted unprecedented boons to the Israeli people, including the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of the Golan Heights, and the recent declaration by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of Israel’s right to its Jordan Valley settlements. For Ben-Ami, these boons, and the Netanyahu tenure, represents the crumbling of Israel’s democratic nature.
The only way that Israel can take additional risks for peace, said Diker, is if “we secure our sovereignty, secure our families, and secure our country… This is the first administration that has said, ‘The Israelis know what they’re talking about. They’ve stood in the line of fire and we’re going to step up to the plate and support them,'” said Diker.
This is why these three issues have the support of the majority of the Israeli political establishment, he said, and asked why Ben-Ami’s organization is taking a stance against this majority.
In his opening remarks, Ben-Ami emphasized that he is a Zionist, and comes from a tradition of Zionism, but said the nature of US Jews’ support for Israel has changed. “There’s a seismic shift taking place in the Jewish community,” said Ben-Ami. His children and the next generation do not see a heroic, democratic Israel, rather they see “a superpower that is engaging in an occupation that undercuts its democratic values.”
Ben-Ami invited Diker to accompany him to Palestinian settlements and see with his own eyes their abject suffering and lack of freedoms.
“Ultimately, I think this divide in our community… is going to be healed if and when Israel changes course,” said Ben-Ami.
The candidates were each presented with a series of four questions — one of which was prepared for the other by his opposition. The evening ended with several questions from the sold-out Tel Aviv audience, packed into the unique Social Space in Kikar Atarim (formerly The Colosseum), which has revitalized a landmark venue at the Gordon Beach.
Ben-Ami is the founder and head of the US-based, left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group J Street, which aims to end the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Ben-Ami worked in American politics and government and in the State of Israel, where he lived in the 1990s. His political resume includes serving in the mid-1990s as the deputy domestic policy adviser in the White House to president Bill Clinton and working on seven presidential and numerous state and local campaigns. Today Ben-Ami lives near Washington, DC, where he is an avid Washington Nationals fan.
Diker is the former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and current senior project director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where he heads the Program to Counter Political Warfare and BDS. He has edited several books on the Iranian regime and Israel’s national security doctrine, and has authored several on the global BDS movement, including: “BDS Unmasked: Radical Roots, Extremist Ends” (2016), “Defeating Denormalization” (2018), “Students for Justice in Palestine Unmasked” (2017, 2018), and “The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Deception: Unmasked” (2019). Diker immigrated to Israel in 1990 and resides in the 12,000-strong West Bank settlement of Efrat, located just outside of Jerusalem, with his wife and five children.