Don't brand 'J Street' as anti-Zionist
The new action committee may think differently from its critics, but it's just as pro-Israel.
We tend to make our political calculations based on situations we know, based on the past, and not on changes that are happening before our eyes. Don Rumsfeld once wrote the following delightful truism:
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns.
That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.
We don't, of course, know who will be the next tenant in the White House. We don't know how he or she, black or white, will affect the goings on in our own back yard here in the Middle East. The political mavens in Washington are predicting that there won't be all that much difference between the policies toward Israel of the three presidential candidates.
Yet it would be foolhardy not to take note of the change that is overtaking the American scene. Suffice to look at the TV election scenes, at the outpouring of exuberant enthusiasm at the Barack Obama fests. Look again at the youngsters who crowd into those election gatherings. They, the young generation, are going to vote for change, for Obama, never mind for whom their elders will vote. Whether he wins or loses, Obama has already left his mark on the American scene. He, at least in the eyes of the young generation, stands for the America of tomorrow.
The mere idea of a black president, or a woman president for that matter, speaks volumes of that change, and it is imperative that we take note of it, and adjust accordingly.
ISRAEL'S NEEDS are primarily represented in the US, over and above our embassy and consulates, by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, considered to be the most formidable lobby operating in the US. When I was director-general of the Foreign Ministry I worked closely with AIPAC, and was full of admiration for the dedication and the efficiency of its leaders and staff. Those were the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and AIPAC's activities dovetailed seamlessly with the policies of the government of Israel.
Since those days it has grown enormously and extended its power to such an extent that no American politician can ignore its clout. It has become the dominant factor on the American Jewish landscape, keeping American politicians in line with what AIPAC's leaders conceive to be the best interests of Israel. Woe betide any politician who ignores the demands of this powerful lobby.
On the face it, that sounds great for Israel. The problem lies both in its interpretation of the best interests of Israel and in its method of delivering its message. In truth we have today a situation in which the dog's tail is wagging the dog. AIPAC has become more militant than the Israeli government. Its messages reflect more the oppositionist Likud doctrine than the moderate stance of Prime Minister Olmert. Moreover, whereas the American Jewish community is known for its liberal, progressive pro-Democrat party heritage - some 80 percent of the Jewish voters traditionally cast their votes for the Democrats - AIPAC is geared to an extreme-right-wing agenda, often more in line with the Jewish neo-cons than with the majority of American Jews.
Coupled with this dichotomy is its method of persuasion of recalcitrant politicians, the overkill of its modus operandi, which is becoming increasingly distasteful to many of the new politicians who sit in the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which now have a Democrat majority.
These are the reasons that a number of pro-Israeli American Jews closely aligned with the Democratic Party felt the need to launch a new Political Action Committee (PAC), to act in what they consider to be more in line with the real interests of Israel. Named 'J Street' (J for Jewish, but also because 'K Street' is where most of Washington's political lobbyists are situated), its founders do not consider it to be a rival of AIPAC, but rather an effort to offer politicians something different from that powerful body, something that will serve the true interests of Israel.
The executive director of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who served in Bill Clinton's administration and whose grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Tel Aviv, wrote in the Forward that "voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel's core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally recognized borders."
And he adds: "I support Israel. My family history ingrains in me the belief that the Jewish people need and deserve a home. I know that that nation must be strong and secure and that a deep bond between Israel and America is essential to its survival. I heed those in Israel who say we are fast approaching a point of no return beyond which it may be impossible to secure Israel's future as the Jewish democratic home envisioned by my father, the Irgunist, and his grandparents, the socialist Zionist pioneers. An immediate, negotiated end to the conflict is, simply, an existential necessity - and the time to reach it is running out."
Ben-Ami and his colleagues in J Street believe that the US must follow a more active policy to achieve this goal. The next president should not wait till the seventh year of his/her term in office to act, as President Bush has done. Do these beliefs warrant him and his supporters to be branded as anti-Zionist, a danger to Israel, as some of columnists writing in The Jerusalem Post have hinted?
J Street intends to tackle the known unknowns, the changes occurring on the American political landscape. It identifies the dangers of a backlash of politicians against the methods employed by AIPAC, and their distaste for its far-right-wing agenda. It intends to make a special effort to win over the young generation. "There is a real generational issue here," Ben Ami says. Those same youngsters - Jewish and non-Jewish - who are today rooting for Barack Obama, or working on Darfur or Tibet, need to be recruited for the just cause of Israel, and J Street intends to make that one its principal objectives.
So no, Mr. Isi Leibler, there was no need to put inverted commas round the words 'Zionist' and 'pro-Israel' when describing the leaders of J Street in your column in the Post last Tuesday. They may think differently from you, but they are as much pro-Israel as you are, and so are the former foreign minister of Israel, the former IDF chief of General Staff, the former head of the Israel Air Force, the former head of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Strategic Studies, to mention just a few of the supporters of J Street in Israel.