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J Street's opposition to Palestinian UN bid is a smart move

My colleague Noam heavily castigated J Street’s announcement that it would oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in a few weeks. He qualified this by saying that he isn’t entirely convinced of the statehood plan itself; but saw political and moral failings in J Street’s position nonetheless.

I, on the other hand, am not convinced of J Street’s opposition, but I respect the logic and the legitimacy of the approach. My main reservations are emotional: the Palestinians need and deserve a state, with all the problems it will face, and I want the world to be swept along by this historic reality; I also think it is the best possible thing for Israel. Many of us among the Israeli left have come to depend on J Street to make that case in Washington and in the American Jewish community, to crack the conspiracy of silence that has effectively BDS’d the Jewish and Israeli left for decades. J Street has made tremendous strides in that direction and it’s been a heady ride.

But when I saw Jeremy Ben Ami on a recent visit to Israel, he wasn’t heady – he looked rather shaken. J Street had just called on the Obama administration not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction – not even asking for it to support the resolution, which was consistent with Obama’s own policy. The response was a vicious outpouring of rage. Political, financial and emotional wrath was heaped on J Street and even Rabbi David Saperstein, who opened J Street’s 2011 conference, felt it was a strategic blunder.

We on the Israeli left forget the painfully irrational forces acting on American Jewry and Washington attitudes towards Israel.  The stale narrative of Israel for many of them has long become more important than reality on the ground; that narrative reads like a Tarzan conversation: “Palestinian state – you bad. Israel – you good. UN, you bad.” This is the reality J Street faces, and we in Israel do not always fully appreciate how the organization must fight tooth and nail against every charge of “de-legitimization” at almost every step.

J Street had two options for an organizational identity. It could be a fearless boundary-pusher. Without immediate political goals, and therefore no fear of political retribution, it could have spoken its mind with no holds barred, adding one more voice to the numerous and noble organizations out there calling for a better way (i.e., supporting a negotiated two-state solution).

The other option was to go for immediate, direct political impact. Like all nationally influential leaders, parties or organizations, that means moving toward the center to build broader coalitions among constituents and gain strategic leverage for future bold moves. President Obama has done exactly this, and beyond health care, many of us are still waiting for his future bold moves.

So far, J Street has never hid the fact that it views itself in the latter role; and there is no question that it has also stretched the boundaries of the American-Jewish dialogue – probably more effectively than all those earlier groups. I may share Noam’s disappointment emotionally; but I wouldn’t dare question J Street’s profound understanding of the occult science of Washington and American Jewry, which is vastly deeper than mine or most Israelis’.

Just as I think it is unhelpful for the American progressive/left community to automatically beat up Obama for not going further (although I appreciate the pluralism of ideas and critique), I think Noam is mistaken when he writes:

it’s even bad politics, because it won’t win J Street any new supporters but it would make people respect the organization less.”

But when my folks, good New York hyper-liberal hyper-intellectuals tell me that their good New York hyper-liberal, hyper-intellectual friends just write off J Street as garden-variety Israel bashers, I must flat-out disagree with Noam’s conjecture that the move won’t win new supporters.

Will it make people respect the organization less? As a political strategist, I’m impressed that J Street has a strategy – which is not synonymous with lack of integrity. The group’s statement laid down clear criteria for judging policy (advancing peace, improving conditions on the ground, and enhance security). It set a clear human rights red line by stating that the Administration must not cut off aid to Palestinians, showing that the Palestinians ought not to be punished for failed international diplomacy as Noam implies. The statement fully legitimized non-violent, diplomatic efforts of the Palestinians, effectively endorsing the legitimacy of other non-violent campaigns.

Finally, there was the following sentence:

J Street remains dismayed at the track record of bias against Israel in the General Assembly and in other UN bodies and agencies.”

This does something the Israeli left tends to be too cowardly to do: it acknowledges where there are genuine flaws in the approach to Israel – which are so crudely, but effectively, exploited by the right. Such acknowledgments can go a long way towards assuring people who agree with J Street in principle but loathe knee-jerk anti-Israelism – which, unfortunately, does exist. It’s time to acknowledge that, and it may free up those people so they can start listening.

Strategy counts. Over the last decade, the Israeli left has been right more often than it has been smart, to translate a Hebrew phrase. We are now suffering a profound loss of trust in Israeli society.

My surveys repeatedly show that roughly half the Jewish population agrees with left-leaning views on the conflict, but only roughly 15% are willing to call themselves left. At present left-identified groups are busy fighting their way out of an image hole, instead of pushing their content.

Maybe J Street will avoid that trap. Maybe it’s we, the Israeli left, who have something to learn from them.

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    1. The argument here is that J-Street has decided to be a political group, that it must therefore avoid taking principled stands and instead must do what will win it a following among (elderly? certainly not among the young) American Jews, and must therefore be AIPAC-lite.

      So it must say it opposed settlements but tell Obama NOT to vote for a UN resolution against settlements. A seeming contradiction. It must say it favors two states but say Obama should veto the Palestinians’ attempt to move toward two states (and away from unending apartheid, the status quo that Israel’s hardliners of almost all parties favors), another contradiction.

      OK, political parties compromise and engage in contradictory behavior. So, but why praise any group for do such politics? USA has AIPAC, has Presidents of you-know-what, so why does it need another AIPAC?

      The political need is to energize the still-idealistic impulses of Jews of all ages, particularly the young — whether or not religious, whether or not inter-married — and that is what “happens” at J-Street’s conferences, but that is NOT what J-Street does via its autocratic pronouncements.

      Its slogan, at the very best, is “Next year we’ll be idealistic, but this year we’ll be AIPAC-lite.”

      So, again, why do you like these folks?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      I think the reality of J Street’s decision, is to support Obama as Noam or others referred.

      I think if their decision was independent at all, it was commonly reading the same tea leaves.

      There are undoubtedly very large dilemmas with the Palestinian petition.

      If those Israelis that desire reconciliation and those Palestinians that desire reconciliation were confidently in power, then I would be confident that the petition is an undeniable step forward.

      Obviously, the Israeli administration is an obstacle, alternately not willing to incur any risk, (even manageable risk), to not desiring any reconciliation.

      If the PA had successfully attracted Hamas and the non-affiliated Palestinian resistance to sincere unification, including the intention to treaty with Israel, then one large obstacle would be null. But, that isn’t the case. Hamas has NOT unified substantively with the PA, and largely about the principle of recognizing Israel, even indirectly.

      Both the Israeli right and Palestinian right are more than willing to disrupt peace efforts.

      The Palestinian petition are a heart valve. The escape ships have been burned. It is forward to sovereignty, forward to peace, or “forward” to escalation.

      The road has turned for Israel though as well, to the same precipice. It cannot ignore the petition, or the result. It will have legal, diplomatic, economic consequences.

      The baby is traveling down the birth canal. There is no Caesarean possible. Only birth.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Philos

      I agree with Witty. J Street has thrown their cards behind President Obama and if we want any American initiatives in the “peace process” then it’ll only happen if Obama is elected for a second term. Then he can open the proverbial can of whoop ass if Bibi is still around because I’m sure there’ll be plenty of Democrats demanding vengeance on him (and by extension Israel).

      So on that basis I support the J Street decision. As an Israeli and world-citizen I absolutely cringe, I am nauseated, and fearful of what would happen if Obama were to lose to one of those wing-nuts from the Republican party. Good grief could you imagine what would happen if we got President Rick Perry??? Argh! I can’t even bare to think about it. And that opportunist Romney would be so insecure about his Mormonism that he’d be more Evangelical than the Evangelical’s when it comes to Israel within his own party ranks.

      Furthermore, a Democratic defeat would allow them to once and for all divorce themselves from our country, blame all America’s woes on us and really f**k us when they get reelected.
      My “centrist” friends always thought I was exaggerating when I went into conniptions over Bibi’s behavior towards Obama and the Dems; I told them that if Bibi f**ked them then they’d never forget that and never forgive Israel for it. “So?” they would say to me… Democrats have a habit of getting reelected every now and then I replied

      Reply to Comment
    4. Andrew

      First off, I would like to acknowledge that I’ve driven down to DC just to take part in J Street conferences in the past, and I’ve supported the group financially. Not to mention my strong political support throughout the years now.

      I’m disappointed by J Street’s support to oppose the UN bid for Palestinian statehood. Totally on the wrong side of history in this one, especially given the ongoing arab movement for democracy in the region. I feel let down by one of the only pro-peace agencies I trusted that was making a difference.

      I still respect the group, but I disagree with you on this one.

      Reply to Comment
    5. directrob

      “J Street remains dismayed at the track record of bias against Israel in the General Assembly and in other UN bodies and agencies.”
      Eh … example?
      “This does something the Israeli left tends to be too cowardly to do”
      Eh … example?
      Without concrete cases is it any different than clips like these:

      Reply to Comment
    6. “My surveys repeatedly show that roughly half the Jewish population agrees with left-leaning views on the conflict, but only roughly 15% are willing to call themselves left.”
      Suicide bombing. They are afraid that what happened will happen again. They want coexistence, that roughly half of the survey, but they saw the bombings stop with the Wall (true or not) and do not want to be associated with a standpoint which refuses to even acknowledge that fear. The rightist parties in the present Administration promise to prevent any repeat of those years. The left seems to ignore what happened, or excuse it away. You have to talk about it. Perhaps you will find that, with the right vocabulary or narative, people will try risking again. Do not look outside for a solution; it will never be found anywhere but within yourselves and your ostensive enemies.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dahlia, you seem to think there’s any point in negotiations with the current (im)balance of power. Now, that’s funny!

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ofer, you raise an important point that I was not able to address in the article – my assessment of J Street’s vision about conflict resolution itself. I personally believe that the entire paradigm has shifted – lack of political ensures the failure of negotiations and we must break free of viewing that as th only relevant framework. From a purely idealistic POV, i’d like to say (and in my personal capacity, I CAN say it) – we may achieve a 2-state solution ONLY through unilateral action, which was a direct outcome of negotiation failure, a precedent of Israeli unilateralism in place for decades (not just the Gaza/Lebanon withdrawals, but the whole settlement project) and the UN move actually gives Israel everything the current and most recent governments have wanted: 2 states, borders, continued hold over settlement blocs. From a rational perspective, it’s madness on israel’s part to reject this. which is why i find the ‘shallow debate’ (here and abroad) so frustrating. and that’s before even mentioning the palestinian perspective, which i believe is justifiably mixed.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Have many people been following the debate in France, Britain, and Germany over how to vote on UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the UNGA? I’d imagine the debate would be framed quite differently.
      The American and Israeli policy-makers’ viewpoints are so doggedly Zionist, and they don’t recognize the continued violence endured by Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli occupation.
      Obama is already beginning to cater to the wishes of his Jewish funders (http://mondoweiss.net/2011/09/dnc-agenda-1-jobs-2-healthcare-3-jewish-messaging.html), but this does nothing to advance the causes of justice and equality.
      And once again, J Street is ensuring that they have a seat at the Obama table.
      The problem, of course, is that stance fully neglects equality and justice.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Morton Nadler

      PM Shamir, on leaving office, said that he could talk with the Arabs for 10 years and meanwhile there would be half a million more settlers. That is what is meant by “direct negotiations.”

      Israel and the US will stand naked before the world if Palestine goes through with its request.


      Reply to Comment
    11. Sinjim

      @Dahlia: “and that’s before even mentioning the palestinian perspective”
      In fact, you didn’t mention the Palestinian perspective at all. With all due respect to you, this post is a reflection of what’s wrong with English-language (and probably Hebrew-language) discussion of the conflict. The whole thing is portrayed as a fight between the Israeli/Diaspora Jewish right and the Israeli/Diaspora Jewish left about Israel.
      It’s a conflict between two competing visions of Zionism, and we Palestinians, meanwhile, remain an afterthought. The best we should have the audacity to hope for is some middling left Zionist compromise.
      This entire debate misses the point.

      Reply to Comment