I spent yesterday afternoon at the J Street conference, the meeting of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group that was founded last year. (A piece that I’d written on J Street and AIPAC appeared in Mother Jones in August.)
The conference was very well attended, with something like 1,500 people taking part. Many of them were liberal, mainstream Jewish activists who would appear to be J Street’s real target audience. The J Street philosophy is that there is a kind of “silent majority” of US Jews who aren’t happy with Israel’s expansionist polices and intransigence, and who don’t believe they’re represented properly by right-leaning groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Milling around, I spoke to a number of those in attendance. A couple of rabbis, from Massachusetts and California, said that the conference was an opportunity to meet with like-minded, liberal, pro-peace Jews. “When I stand up in my pulpit, with any kind of criticism of Israel, over settlements, Gaza, to say anything other than, ‘Go, bomb them when you want,’ it’s considered anti-Israel,” saud Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater from Pasadena. “So it’s thrilling to be here, to say, ‘We love Israel, we believe in Israel’s security, but the status quo isn’t acceptable.”
That about sums up J Street’s message. But it isn’t enough to get even grudging support from Israel itself. Michael Oren, the American who serves as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, rebuffed a J Street invite to attend or speak, saying that he was upset about “certain policies that caused concerns, aroused concerns,” telling the Jerusalem Post: “I conveyed these concerns to J Street,” but adding that his concerns were not “sufficiently allayed.”
The highlight of the conference was an address by General James Jones, the US national security adviser, who pledged that the Obama administration will take part in future J Street events as well. “You can be sure this administration will be represented at all future conferences,” said Jones. In his speech, Jones pronounced the standard boilerplate about the unbreakable bond between Israel and the US, but for the most part the liberal audience sat on its hands, erupting into applause instead when Jones spoke forcefully about the crisis in Gaza and about the importance of creating a “contiguous,” viable, independent Palestinian state. Jones also said that if he could tell President Obama to solve any single one of the world’s many problems, “This would be it.” (Of course, Jones can tell that to Obama.) The Israel-Palestine conflict affects many, many other problems around the world. “This,” he stressed, “is the epicenter.”
Many pro-Israeli hardliners don’t like hearing talk like that, since they reject the idea that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict would have what Jones called “ripples.” But most diplomats consider it a no-brainer that getting Israel to accept a Palestinian state would make Obama’s stated goal of rebuilding relations with the Muslim world a lot easier.
On the sidelines of the conference, I interviewed Ami Ayalon, a former director of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, who told me that Obama made a mistake in going to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey so far to talk about peace — but not to Israel. He said:
“Obama made a mistake by not coming to Israel. In Israel, Obama is not considered a friend, in the eyes of the Israelis. If you do not come to talk to us, people ask why. If you do come, tell us everything! Tell us things we do not want to hear. But say it in Jerusalem. And, go to Ramallah! But don’t do it from Washington.”
This is a point of view often heard from moderate Israelis and some J Street types: that, by going to Israel, Obama can reassure the security fears of ordinary Israelis who feel like Obama might abandon them. I’m not sure. There is a time when Obama certainly ought to go to Israel, and maybe a high profile trip there could be useful, at some point. But I’m not convinced it would have any real effect. Still, it’s true that many fearful Israeli voters are flocking to far-right politicians precisely because they are panicked about the loss of American support. It may be that the threat of reduced American support for Israel, coupled with the announcement of a tough-minded US plan for a solution (borders, Jerusalem, right of return) is what’s needed now. Earlier, right-wing Israeli governments have fallen apart or been voted out when faced with a possible deterioration of US-Israel relations.
For J Street, that is a key unanswered question: Will J Street support the White House if it decides to turn the screws on Israel, to pressure the Israeli government by threatening reduced US support for Israel’s military, and so on? I wonder. At yesterday’s J Street event, Representative Wexler, an outspoken Jewish-Zionist member of Congress who is close to Obama, litertally shouted into the microphone (while introducing Jones) about the presence of 1,300 US troops who’ve just arrived in Israel to take part in a huge military exercise having to do with anti-missile defense systems. They will be there, he shouted, for the “indefinite future.”
In the end, a final deal between Israel and Palestine will indeed require US security guarantees for Israel. Nearly everyone agrees on that. But to get from here to there, it might be necessary to remind the Israelis that US support is not open-ended or infinite as long as Israel maintains its implacable hostility to a viable Palestinian state.