Israel's rights... and wrongs

J Street founder: Palestinian state key to fulfilling Zionist dream.

J Street 224 63 (photo credit: )
J Street 224 63
(photo credit: )
Jeremy Ben-Ami doubts that defiance in the face of his upbringing is at the root of the left-wing worldview he has been promoting through J Street, the Washington DC-based Israel lobby group he founded just over a year ago. "I don't know that rebellion explains it as much as the changes in circumstance over the last 60-80 years, and the overall shifts in the tides of history," says the 46-year-old, American-born Ben-Ami, whose late father, Yitzhak, was among the leaders of the militant-Zionist Irgun Zva'i Leumi in pre-state Palestine. Furthermore, he adds, "The phenomenon of a son or daughter of an IZL member from the 1930s-40s coming to consider a two-state solution vital is not exactly unique to my family." Indeed not. Still, the contrast between father and son in this case is more than merely ironic. The former, whose own parents were among the founders of Tel Aviv, traveled first to Europe - as an emissary engaging in illegal immigration just prior to World War II - and then to the United States, to raise funds for the IZL as part of the Bergsen Group. He personally bought the Altalena arms ship and was on it when it was attacked in 1948, off the coast of Tel Aviv. After that, he vowed that he was not going to live in Israel as long as David Ben-Gurion, who gave the command to sink it, was prime minister. So he emigrated to New York, where Jeremy was born. The latter, whose career has been characterized by the pursuit of liberal causes, served as former president Bill Clinton's deputy domestic policy adviser and policy director on Howard Dean's unsuccessful bid to run for president in 2004, and as communications director for the leftist New Israel Fund. And his decision to create J Street (one of whose initial ideological supporters, George Soros, apparently backed out because he thought his reputation as a bankroller for groups that blame Israel and the US for the world's ills might not be helpful to this particular organization) was born out of a sense that the Zionist dream of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents wouldn't "be realized until Israel has a final border that the world accepts and until there is a Palestinian state." Asked how his father, who died 25 years ago, would have felt about his belief that the Jewish state has to be pressured by the American government into making concessions towards a deal that would guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian one, Ben-Ami, the married father of a five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, answers: "As I visited his gravesite this trip, I actually wondered the same thing. My hope is that he would have been pleased that I care so deeply about Israel's survival that I'm devoting my life's work to it. I imagine there will be much I will disagree with my children about as they become adults, but I will always be proud of them if they promote the values and principles they believe in." Why the name J Street? It's an inside Washington, DC reference. There is no J Street on the grid there. Every single letter from A to W is represented, other than J. For us, this is symbolic of there not having been a political place for our point of view; we are filling a vacuum and a gap in DC's political map. Also, K Street is famous for being the location of all the lawyers and lobbyists, so our name is a take-off on that, too. And the J stands for Jewish, so it's a triple entendre. You call yourself and your organization "pro-Israel." What does that term mean to you? Being pro-Israel means ensuring that, over the long term, Israel will continue to be a safe and secure home for the Jewish people, so that we will never again have to suffer persecution, injustice and oppression anywhere in the world. What constitutes being "anti-Israel?" Being anti-Israel means rejecting the notion of the right of the Jewish people to a state that didn't exist before, and that its establishment was a mistake. Those who question the very founding premise of this state are anti-Israel. AIPAC, the most prominent Jewish lobby in Washington, claims to work on behalf on any given Israeli government, regardless of its political leanings. Is that what makes it different from your organization? I have always viewed AIPAC as the guarantor of the strength of the US-Israel relationship. I don't know that it has always agreed with the Israeli government; I don't know that it has always agreed with the American government. But its fundamental purpose is to ensure that the relationship remain rock solid, that there is a maximum amount of aid coming from the US to Israel, and to facilitate an understanding on the part of the American public of what Israel is all about. Would you argue with that purpose? Absolutely not. We are not, in any way, in opposition to AIPAC. In fact, we want to work with them on much of what they do. And we value what they've done over the last 30-40 years and longer to cement the US-Israel relationship. However...? The really important "however" is that we think that if being pro-Israel means guaranteeing Israel's long-term survival and security, the single most important thing that can be done is to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and the broader Arab community, once and for all. So, if we at J Street define this as the fundamental existential threat for Israel right now, and we are a lobby supporting Israel, then we should make it our No. 1 priority to support any effort to solve that. Until now, there hasn't been an effective and vocal lobby in Washington that has made this its central purpose - one that has told politicians and policy makers that there's real support for it among the American-Jewish people. The American-Jewish people have always been overwhelmingly liberal and supported the Democratic Party. So what's new here? What do the politicians and policy makers need to be told about the American-Jewish community's leanings that they don't already know? One of the interesting things about American Jews is how small a percentage of them actually make their voting decisions based on Israel. We have done a couple of polls in which we've asked people to list what issues they vote on. Only eight percent of American Jews mentioned Israel as one of their top two issues. But the perception of American politicians would probably be the inverse. In other words, if you were to poll American politicians and ask them what percentage of American Jews vote based on Israel, they might say 92%. This is because the loudest voices that American politicians hear come from one part of the pro-Israel community, leading them to believe that the entirety of the American-Jewish community has only one perspective on this issue and this conflict. Are you sure it's the Jews whom the politicians are taking into account in relation to Israel? Couldn't it be the far more numerous Christian-Zionist voters they are hearing? I think that's exactly right. There's a broad set of groups that carry this message. This is why I stress that we're not juxtaposing ourselves to AIPAC alone. It isn't really about AIPAC. It's about the voices the politicians hear. And one of the key parts of the alliance that has supported what we consider to be a very one-sided view - when it comes to American politics on Israel - is the evangelical community. This has resulted in a perception of pro-Israel, it only comes from one side. Speaking of one-sided views, do you consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being part of, or distinct from, global jihad against the West? I think there is a very important distinction, which is that at the nub of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests a legitimate grievance that has yet to be answered. When the decision was made to have a Jewish home here in Palestine, there was neither a decision nor arrangements made for the people who already lived here. And that remains unresolved to this day. That is separate from the issues one has with radical Islam - not with Islam as a whole, but with radical Islam - with groups like al-Qaida and others who are on a global jihad, and who use Palestinian grievance as a recruiting tool. This is why it is in America's interest to solve the conflict here, because it will take away one of the fundamental recruiting tools for the radical jihadists. Regarding what you say about there having been no arrangements made for the people who were already living here when Israel was established, what about the Partition Plan that the Jews accepted and the Arabs rejected? That was the case initially, in 1947-1948. But the reality is that people ended up in refugee camps. They ended up without a state. And I feel it's not actually useful, or necessarily healthy, to spend a lot of time trying to allocate and apportion blame. The final reality is that here we are in 2009, and there are millions of Palestinians still living in refugee camps; there is no Palestinian state; and until there is one, this will continue to fester and constitute an existential threat to Israel. Do any Palestinians actually have to be living in refugee camps, after billions of dollars, euros and shekels in aid have been poured into the Palestinian Authority? Couldn't those camps have been eliminated long ago, had the Palestinian leaders wanted to do away with them? Well, yes, it's been decades since the Palestinians have been political pawns of so many different people - including the Arab world. Including the Israelis. The Palestinian people... not only they, but their leadership... have squandered the money. There's been corruption. They have caused their own problems, as well. There's more than enough blame to go around on all sides. But at the end of the day, the conflict itself won't stop, and the grievance won't be addressed, until there is a Palestinian state. Palestinian statehood has been accepted and attempted by many Israeli leaders. When Ehud Barak went to Camp David in 2000 to seal the deal with Yasser Arafat, the result was not peace, but rather the second intifada. Can you address that? We are at a point today, in 2009 - without rehashing 2000 and 2001 and Camp David and Oslo and all of that - at which the only thing we can do is look forward. The question is: What will get us to the end of this conflict now? It is our belief that, at this point, if you were to put the two sides together in a room, with nobody else present, they would not resolve this conflict. The issues are so tough - they require such political compromise - with such severe repercussions on both sides, that only if there's a very, very strong involvement from America and the broader international community, including the Arab league, can we hope to have a resolution. So, yes, I agree that there have been numerous attempts. And there is also a wide variety of interpretations for the reasons behind the failure, which have to be studied and learned from. But at the end of the day, all we can do is figure out where we are today, and how we move forward from here. Do you really believe that the ultimate goal of the Palestinians is statehood - not the destruction of the state of Israel - and that this is all an issue of ironing out the borders? As with all people - and this applies to Americans, Israelis and Palestinians - there's a wide range of views. So, when you ask whether the Palestinians believe something, I can't say that 100% do. But, just as 75% of Israelis, in poll after poll, ultimately want a two-state solution - as does a majority of American Jews - I also know that every Palestinian opinion poll shows that a majority of the Palestinian people wants this, as well. I mean, they're people, just like us, with families and kids. But the PA is not a democracy, which means the Palestinian "people" don't have a say in their future the way Israelis do. No, but if you were to put a deal together, and you were to put the resolution to a referendum, I have no doubt, based on everything we've seen, that it would pass both peoples. Of course, there are extremists on both sides - among the Palestinians, who want nothing here that resembles a Jewish state, and who want no Jews in this area; and among certain Israelis, who have made a public platform of wanting no Arabs in the greater land of Israel. But the majority of people tend to be more moderate and more concerned with their day-to-day lives than the extremists who manipulate politics and have made achieving a deal so hard. You say that, whatever the history, there is a people who was wronged, and that it is in Israel's interest to right that wrong. Which wrong - that of '48, when Israel was established, or that of '67, when Israel won the Six Day War - are you actually referring to? Well, the wrong that the Palestinian people live with is the sense that there is a home that their grandparents or even their great-grandparents at one point had, which is now within the state of Israel. It is a home they were forced out of, for one reason or another - either they fled on their own, or they were militarily forced out, whatever the specifics - and they live with a sense that an injustice has been done to them. Now, today, they live as a stateless people that is hoping to have a home to call their own. That's the root of their grievance. It is something that we just have to come to terms with and accept. The ultimate solution is going to be a recognition of the wrong that was done, and a fulfillment of the right of the Palestinians to a homeland, but not within the borders of the state of Israel. This right will need to be exercised within the Palestinian state, where they will be able to return to, be compensated and start a new life. After the disengagement from Gaza, the Palestinians turned greenhouses into missile factories, not agriculture. They took money from abroad not to feed themselves or their children, but to buy weapons and further terrorism. What evidence is there to suggest that if your scenario were to materialize, what would emerge is society-building? It is crucial for Israel's security not to do this unilaterally, but rather in coordination with the international community. The chaos that followed disengagement is the natural result of a vacuum. It would therefore be a tremendous mistake to do the same on the West Bank - build a wall and pull out. There has to be some form of negotiated resolution. Of course, it will have to involve some form of international security guarantee for Israel against the type of attacks that have been launched from Gaza. Does the fact that the West Bank and Gaza are, in effect, like two warring states make no dent in your view of how to bring about a resolution? Indeed, there are a lot of serious obstacles at this point in time, and you are pointing to the single largest of them. The chances of a resolution's being achieved are slim and getting slimmer by the day. But it doesn't mean that we don't have an obligation and an opportunity to try anyway. The need for Palestinian reconciliation - the need for a single address within the PA that speaks for the people and can accept Israel - is utmost. This is why it is so crucial for the Arab league and broader Arab community to play a key role as guarantor, to help bring the Palestinians to the table in a unified fashion. One complaint you have expressed in writing, and among your stated reasons for establishing J Street, is the lack of tolerance for dissent in certain organizations regarding Israel's policies, which make it hard for you to get access to the literal and proverbial microphone. But how do you fare on campus? Don't your positions give you endless access to the podium in academia? The problem on campus is that the loudest voices are from extremists. There is no space for quiet, reasoned, nuanced dialogue. Particularly not for Jewish students, who on the one hand want to remain loyal to their Jewish values and traditions, and on the other are also questioning whether the Palestinians' grievances might be valid. This requires learning in a calm atmosphere, because such questions are not best addressed by screaming through megaphones. But on campuses, what you often have is a loud group screaming against Israel, and calling for boycotts or divestment and the like. It's a hostile environment, which causes Jewish organizations to get very defensive and refuse to accept any criticism of Israel. So they say, "We're the good guys, and they're the bad guys." But many college kids sense that maybe there isn't a good guy and a bad guy - that maybe it's more complicated than that - that maybe there's enough wrong to go around on all sides. Our hope is to create a space on campus where students who want there to be a Jewish homeland - a state of Israel that they can be proud of, because it is true to their values and serves as a "light unto the nations." We want to create a place where they can feel comfortable confronting the issues, as a way of keeping them in the Jewish community over time, as opposed to than turning them off to the point that they say, "I don't need this." What about the Arab students? I want the Arab students to feel welcome in our programs, but they have to understand that we are pro-Israel. We believe that there should be a state of Israel, that should be the homeland of the Jewish people. And we also believe there should be a Palestinian state, that should be the homeland of the Palestinian people. What I have found is that many American Muslims are more than willing than before to say: "If that's your definition of 'pro-Israel,' then I'm pro-Israel, too." Why do you make it sound as though you are talking about two future states that should be established, as though Israel doesn't actually exist yet? That's deliberate. The Zionist dream of a state of Israel permanently fixed in the community of nations - and accepted both internationally and in this region - isn't yet realized. We haven't reached the finish line on that goal. And we won't have until Israel has a set of internationally recognized borders, and a final resolution for the Palestinian people. Until that happens, it is our view that the grand dream and the experiment of creating the state of Israel isn't complete. If your vision of two states is realized, and afterwards terrorism is launched against Israel from the Palestinian side, would you support a tough military response on the part of the IDF? Absolutely. The qualitative military edge that Israel has been guaranteed by the US is absolutely critical to maintaining future peace and security. Military deterrence is essential to maintaining that peace. Where Israel's recent response to rocket fire from Gaza is concerned, the issue was not whether Israel was justified. It was. If you're getting hit by rockets, of course you have the right to strike back. The question is whether doing so advances your interests, and we don't feel that Operation Cast Lead did that. But after there is a peace deal that includes internationally recognized borders which the Palestinian leadership has signed off on, if the security guarantees that were put in place don't hold, and the multinational forces can't secure Israel, not only does Israel have the right to strike back, but it would be a much better position internationally to do so, because it [would have] captured the moral high ground. One of Israel's biggest problems right now is that, in the eyes of the international community, Israel is no longer the David; it is now the Goliath. Speaking of Goliaths, why do you favor negotiating with Iran? Of course, there is no guarantee that negotiations are going to work; there always has to be a fallback option. In fact, negotiations are more likely to be successful if there is another option lurking in the background. Which is why I am not saying that military action should be taken off the table. But I am saying that we should stop backing Iran into a corner. The more it's threatened and feels under attack, the more it's going to behave like a caged animal. Let's give it space; let's try to engage it; let's follow what President Obama has said, which is to extend the hand and see what happens. Isn't that dangerous, considering the clock is ticking on the Iranian nuclear program? It's comparable to the Gaza situation. Just because a case can be made for taking military action against Iran doesn't mean you should take it. Doing so will set back its nuclear program for a number of years - potentially, that is, because there's actually some dispute over whether such action would be effective. But even if it were effective, if anything were to give Iran incentive to restart the program - if anything were to give justification to its sense of being under attack - it would be our taking military action. So I'm not convinced that the best strategy is to exercise that option. Had you been around at the time, would you have said the same about Hitler? Hitler had an actual track record of expansion. Nor was there any question about the philosophy he was pursuing. But [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, while he says despicable things, this doesn't mean that he's doing them. Iran has been an Islamic republic for 30 years, yet there's been no indication that it intends to invade a nation. And putting everything into the WW II mind frame is problematic anyway, because when you do, of course you come to the conclusion that you should attack. But it's very important to make sure that it's the right model.