The election of Donald Trump has emboldened fears that the two-state solution will officially be tossed into the dustbin of history. But J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami is undeterred, steadfast in his belief that two states is the only solution.+972 Magazine speaks to him at the annual J Street conference about the rise of Steve Bannon, the possibility of a regional plan for peace, and why he thinks Palestinian citizens of Israel do not form a ‘natural alliance’ with his organization’s constituency.
Under the dark cloud of Israeli and American leaders who appear united in their disinterest in a two-state solution, and the growing refrain in policy circles that the “window” is gone, J Street, the organization whose signature policy goal is a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — might have found itself foundering. What new ideas can be found when all avenues to the goal have been exhausted? What role does it have left to play in such a bleak context?
The annual J Street Conference that ended Monday in Washington DC raised all these questions — minus the despair. Organizers said that over 3,500 people had turned out, panel rooms were packed to standing-only. The abundant cheering and whooping sometimes felt spontaneous and emotional, at others seemed tinged with effort to be enthusiastic.
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One person whose enthusiasm seems effortless is Jeremy Ben Ami, the founder and president of the liberal Zionist organization. Despite all signs pointing to perdition, Ben Ami is indomitable, ticking off a long list of vital roles J Street has to play in the changed landscape of both America and Israel, and insisting on the singular viability of two-state solution. I spoke to Ben Ami as the conference neared its end on the role J Street must play in influencing U.S. government policy, among other things.
With the election of Donald Trump, Israel and America are now both being run by people who are not sympathetic to J Street’s agenda. What is J Street’s role in that kind of environment?
We need to be able to work in both opposition and support mode. I often use an American football metaphor to say that that we were the ‘blocking back’ under Obama, that we were going for the same end zone and trying to clear the way. Now we are on defense and trying to prevent bad things from happening.
For instance, we’re trying to prevent the Iran nuclear deal from being undone. We have to find ways to block that in Congress. Or take away aid to the Palestinians: Senator [Lindsey] Graham has already said that he intends to try and cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. We’ll try to block that. There is going to be a lot of defense.
Our agenda is not a proactive one in terms of legislation, but there is a very proactive agenda politically — since we are also a political organization, not only a lobby. Our political motivation is to win. So we will engage in a number of different races, as we have every year, trying to shift the balance in Congress.
Then there is the work in the Jewish community. We have a lot of work to do to help communal leaders to either understand the stakes of what is happening, or if they show some empathy toward our views, to get them to stand up and join us.
Israel is such a hostile environment these days for the kind of things that J Street stands for. It seems some of your most natural partners in Israel might be Palestinian citizens of Israel like MK Ayman Odeh, who spoke at the conference. Do you see a new and engaged role for the Arab community in Israel because in some ways they’re more likely to share J Street’s values than many Jewish Israelis right now?
The most important value for J Street that is an issue for the Palestinian community is our Zionism. J Street’s raison d’etre in the Jewish community is to say that — for those American Jews who care about there being a nation-state for the Jewish people — things are going in the wrong direction.
So since we start from there, the work that we do and the messaging that we use and the advocacy that we do is going to be different from that of people who are looking for civil and equal rights. And while we believe firmly in those rights, we start in a different place. That makes the dialogue difficult. Our audience in the American Jewish community and on Capitol Hill doesn’t start in the same place as Ayman Odeh’s constituency.
Odeh was here, however, and was a major part of the conference. So there is an opportunity of some sort.
But it’s not our natural alliance. The natural alliance is, hopefully, with the folks in the center of the [Israeli] political map who understand the imperative of separating and creating two states and ending the occupation
Okay, let’s talk about them for a minute. In one of the panels on the American Jewish fault line, people were asking what they could do. I said that one thing is to not only come and learn about Israel, but to come and share their values with Israelis. Do you think J Street has a role in bringing progressive-minded American Jews to come and speak to their cousins and brothers and sisters?
At this point the unfortunate answer is no. The target of our work is American, and we need to bring Israelis over here. I think the work that is helpful for us is with the security establishment, which uses language that isn’t going to resonate with Ayman Odeh, and isn’t going to resonate with the readership of +972.
But the language of security is what I need to take to conservative synagogues in Atlanta, Houston and San Diego to help them understand why the path that Israel is on is so destructive. When they hear it from a brigadier general and understand that 80-85 percent of high-ranking retired security people agree with the premises J Street is laying out — that’s what we have to focus on right now. We started J Street to change the American Jewish dynamic.
But ultimately to get to the goal of ending the occupation and creating a two-state solution.
Right. As a partner to those in Israel who are doing that there.
What does ‘being a partner’ mean?
They are doing their work there — we’re doing our work here. We draw strength from each other. But the line I do not want to cross is direct interference or influence. That undercuts our legitimacy here. Our critics say, “Well, if you’re going to try to change things in Israel, go live there. Go fight there. Go send your kids on a school bus that can get blown up. Have your kids serve in the army.”
Our agenda is to change the community we live in. To change the country we live in. To change the politics of the country we live in. That’s why it is such an important line and we work in parallel to people who have similar values and views.
In terms of changing the country you live in, do you have a new role in the Trump era, addressing problems that touch on Jews and Jewish life, as well as other minorities?
Yes. We have to step forward here and speak out here about the values that J Street upholds, and which are the core of our identity. Politically it’s a real moment of opportunity for the liberal Zionist camp because with Trump and Netanyahu in power, both of whom are so clearly aligned and out of sync with 75 percent of Jewish Americans, it creates an enormous opportunity for J Street and liberal Jewish politics to say “your home is here.”
Can you name a few things that have been done already?
We have been very involved in early organizing on the refugee ban. That is one case that so clearly counters Jewish experience and values in this country. The atmosphere of Islamophobia and the influence of the Steve Bannon/Breitbart/alt-right white nationalism on the administration — we started speaking out about that around November 9th, once it became clear that Bannon was going to be a key player.
You had access to the previous administration. Do you have any channels of communication with this White House that you would not reject because your own values?
It is very important to hold true to your values while you are also trying to achieve your objectives. If an administration that is absolutely awful on a whole series of things is suddenly in the midst of a serious effort to reach “the ultimate deal” (Editor’s note: Trump has used the term to refer to Israeli-Palestinian peace), it would be malpractice not to engage on that. If this issue were moving forward in accordance with our values and views, we would engage.
But that would not give the administration a free pass on the refugee ban or the coddling of Islamophobes. You cannot give up on core values to achieve your goals, but at times you can achieve your goals with people who don’t hold all your values.
What do you think about the Herzog peace plan?
I actually thought it contained some interesting elements. The idea of recognizing the [Palestinian] state and provisional borders was a positive step forward — I don’t know that I’ve heard that before. I liked the clear decision to stop building outside the settlement blocs. I want to see a map of what the blocs are.
You sound like Mahmoud Abbas.
But really, show us the map. Because when Netanyahu talks about the blocs, he talks about a “Beit El bloc.” (Editor’s note: Beit El is an Israeli settlement deep in the West Bank, directly abutting the Palestinian city of Ramallah.) That’s not a real bloc. A map would be a really important part of an initiative like that.
A 10-year horizon is not unrealistic for what it’s going to take to get to a full two-state arrangement if you’re really serious about it. It may take more than 10 years. An initiative is certainly better than no initiative. One would hope that the Israeli opposition would make clear to the Israeli people the critical moment of choice that the country is at for its future and what Israel will look like for the next 70 years.
We are marking 50 years of occupation this year, but it is also the 70th birthday of the State of Israel, and the question is really: Where will Israel be at 100? Where will it be in another 70 years?
A real discussion and a choice is needed, as well as a political leader to step forward and say: “Business as usual leads us to a place we don’t want to be. We need to change course and here is the plan.”
Is one of J Street’s political tasks to say ‘there is a plan,’ and then explain to the American Jewish community why you would support that plan?
[The Herzog] plan provides a basis for that discussion. To say to American Jews that there is an alternative out there — that there is somebody stepping forward with a plan. Now, it may not be the perfect plan, and we might have some of our own ideas to put forward, but it’s ultimately up to Israelis. I’d love to see an Israeli leader step forward.
There is one, if you consider Herzog an Israeli leader…
Bibi talks about an opportunity for a regional deal in a cynical way of trying to avoid dealing with the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is truth to the strategic picture he’s painting, which is that Israel has an opportunity to strike a deal with the broader Arab world — but only if it is done as part of a comprehensive resolution to the underlying conflict.
So you have this incredible offer to make to the Israeli people that, for the first time in the history of Zionism, you have the opportunity to be accepted by the neighborhood. To have borders that are recognized not just regionally, but around the world. That’s an incredible opportunity. I don’t understand why there isn’t a leader to step forward and make that case to the Israeli people that this is a moment of historic opportunity.
Do you find that it is getting harder to convince many people that two states is still a viable solution?
No. We have been talking about the concept of partition for 80 years, at least since the Peel Commission. We have these two peoples with a claim over one land, and partition is ultimately the only way to resolve it. I’m happy to be part of a dying breed that believes that. I still believe it and this organization still believes it.