J Street’s attack on Israel’s center-left represents wrong turn

US pro-peace group ignores Meretz and other left wing parties that put forward an alternative vision to Netanyahu.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after the first elections exit polls (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after the first elections exit polls
J Street’s post-election condemnation of the Center-Left for not offering a “clear, alternative vision and path to the one put forward by the right wing” was an unusual statement.
It represents an apparent new strategy for the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” American group that, rather than embrace the success of the Blue and White Party, appears to dismiss the entirety of the country’s Center and Left by calling for “a new and more effective Israeli Left.”
The letter, signed by J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, was emailed to the group’s mailing list. “In this campaign, the Center-Left attacked [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu but did not offer a clear, alternative vision and path to the one put forward by the right wing,” the letter read. “As a result, yesterday’s election did not place in front of the voters the central question about Israel’s future: What happens to Israel’s security, democracy and Jewish character if it chooses to permanently rule all of the territory – and all of the people – between the river and the sea?”
It says that J Street will continue to stand with and support partners “who are determined to create a new and more effective Israeli Left, to put this question at the forefront of its agenda — and to change the course that their country is on.”
J Street was founded in 2007 and says that it works to organize and mobilize “pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.” It works in American politics and the Jewish community, advocating “for policies that advance shared US and Israeli interests as well as Jewish and democratic values, leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The recent statement appears to go beyond that mandate, seeking to change Israeli politics from within and largely dismissing all the parties on the Center and Left, which have worked for years for a secure, democratic Israel.
It is part of a more strident criticism coming from J Street recently. On April 11, it tweeted an article attacking Netanyahu’s “full-throated embrace of the far Right’s extreme agenda” arguing that he was on a “dangerous track that is not in the interest of Israel, the Palestinians or the United States.”
The day before another tweet said that “we will see fundamental change in the US-Israel relationship” due to discussion of Israel annexing parts of the West Bank. In April, the organization praised Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard and Julian Castro for taking “a stand against Netanyahu’s move toward West Bank annexation.” Gabbard has been criticized for her support of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, making her inclusion a bit ironic. J Street says that, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, this “is the kind of leadership we need from presidential candidates.”
J Street opposed the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, arguing that while Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem, “it should be internationally recognized as such in the context of an agreed two-state solution that also establishes a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.” J Street also opposed US recognition of the Golan as part of Israel, asserting on March 21 that “the final status of the territory will have to be determined by a negotiated agreement” and that any recognition is “a needlessly provocative move that violates international law and does not enhance Israeli security.”
They argued that it was done by the Trump administration to hand a “political gift” to Netanyahu. One wonders how Israel will negotiate a settlement with a Syrian regime that made 11 million of its people into refugees and killed hundreds of thousands in a brutal civil war.
This is the context in which the latest broadside against Israel’s election result comes. What is striking is that 1.1 million people voted for Blue and White, the main alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud. That is several hundred thousand more votes and 10 more seats than Zionist Union earned in 2015. By any measure, a phenomenal success. Yet J Street argued that the Center-Left did not offer an alternative vision or path and that the voters did not have in front of them central questions about their country’s future.
Despite J Street’s assertions, voters did have parties that put in front of them a clear vision for a two-state solution in a democratic and national home of the Jewish people. Meretz put forward a view like this. But J Street doesn’t mention Meretz at all. It seems to dismiss entirely all the parties on the Left, painting it as if the public had no choices similar to the J Street vision.
This must lead to questions examining how out of step J Street is becoming with Israeli society. It appears to support creating a whole new Left here, when ostensibly it is an American organization. Don’t Israeli leftists know what their country’s interests are more than those abroad? Can’t they articulate their own vision to voters as they’ve done for 70 years?
The idea that citizens didn’t have a choice at the polls is also contradictory to J Street’s own tweets. On April 4, it tweeted an article by Naomi Chazan in which she argued that “I will cast my vote for those dedicated to a progressive, forward-looking, decent Israel.”
J Street used to be more close to the Obama administration’s views. The administration’s second secretary of state, John Kerry, argued in December 2016 that it could not “in good conscience, protect the most extreme elements of the settlement movement as it tries to destroy the two-state solution,” and said US interests were in a two-state solution.
President Barack Obama sounded this note in his 2013 speech to Israeli students, hammering home “two states for two peoples” and the hard choices that would be made.
The organization’s statement about creating a “new and more effective Left” and denying that voters here had in front of them an alternative pro-peace vision, goes further than the Obama administration did. Some in the US may oppose Netanyahu’s policies, but dismissing the millions of people who voted for an alternative seems to paint J Street into a corner. It could have embraced Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al as examples of parties that did put forward a different vision than Netanyahu. Who are J Street’s likely partners in Israel if not activists from those groups? Ignoring them as not having a vision for a path forward seems to write off most Israelis.
This appears to be another example of the lack of dialogue between Israel and some critics in the Diaspora. It points to a misreading of the country and an unwillingness to take seriously the concerns of large numbers of Israelis.
Israelis can’t be prodded into creating a new Left, they have ample left-wing voices and Center-Left parties. They have choices and they made those choices on April 9. Many citizens are reticent about the prospects of peace. They have suffered before and they are concerned that there is no peace partner on the other side of the aisle.