Obama, J Street, and Middle East peace

By Bernd Debusmann
October 30, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Message to Israelis disgruntled with President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies: you’ve got used to U.S. presidents pouring affection on you. Forget that. Obama is not “a lovey-dovey kind of guy”.

That assessment came from an old Middle East hand, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, in an exchange in the closing minutes of the inaugural national conference of J Street, a new pro-Israel lobby for the liberal majority of American Jews (78 percent voted for Obama) who do not feel represented by traditional pro-Israel advocacy groups, chief of them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The conference, in the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, marked “the birth of a movement, a coming-out party for those who want to widen the tent and are not stuck in the mindset that because we are pro-Israel, we must be anti- somebody else”.

Now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Indyk was on a panel entitled “Why Two States? Why Now?” He responded to a question from the audience on the advisability of American presidents getting personally involved in Middle East peace-making. They shouldn’t get involved in procedural detail, he said, but for Obama it would be “really important” to go to Israel. Why?

His approval rating, according to Israeli polls, hovers around five percent, a sharp contrast to the 88 percent drawn by George W. Bush, a man thoroughly disliked almost everywhere else. The majority of Israelis think Obama is pro-Palestinian and see his visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as evidence that he wants to distance himself from Israel and curry favour with the Arabs. Unless he can dispel that public perception, the Israeli government is unlikely to make concessions.

Without major concessions, both from the Israelis and the Palestinians, there is no chance that Obama will succeed where other American presidents have failed. As far as concessions from Israel are concerned, J Street expects to help the Obama administration convince Congress that questioning Israeli policies is not tantamount to being anti-Israel.

Thanks largely to the enormous influence of AIPAC, which calls itself “America’s pro-Israel lobby,” criticism of Israel has been rare in Congress; debate of U.S. policies towards the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid even rarer. In a controversial 2006 essay, two prominent political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, concluded that AIPAC had a “stranglehold” on Congress.

It’s too early to tell whether this will change, now that there is another lobby that calls itself pro-Israel but does not shy away from questioning Israeli policies. J Street reacted to last December’s Israeli attack on Gaza by criticising Hamas for raining rockets on Israeli civilians and Israel for punishing 1.5 million Gazans for the actions of extremists.

That stand drew furious responses both from the political right and the center. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious organisation in America, called J Street’s position “morally deficient” and “profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment”.

On the right, the Gaza statement transformed J Street into an anti-Israeli, pro-Hamas organisation. One right-wing blogger called the group’s conference, in the last week of October, an “anti-Israel hate fest”.

(J Street, by the way, takes its name from a gap in the Washington street grid. There’s an I Street and a K Street, home to most lobby firms in the capital, but no J Street. Missing street, missing voice).

Despite his disagreement with J Street over Gaza, Yoffie attended the conference and took part in a debate over what it means to be pro-Israel. There was agreement on a theme that ran through much of the meeting –  Jewish settlements in the heart of the West Bank make it impossible to establish a Palestinian state. Time is running out for a two-state solution. The alternative is worse.

That would be living together in one country in which Jews would be outnumbered (Palestinian birth rates are higher) and faced with the choice of abandoning democracy by exerting apartheid-style minority rule or giving up the idea of Israel as a homeland for all Jews.

The establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, has been reluctantly embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but prospects look very bleak for soon resuming the peace talks that stalled last December.

Still, the mood at J Street was upbeat. One of the reasons: an attendance that convincingly ended arguments whether there was an appetite for a left-wing organisation that shuns the reflexive Israel-right-or-wrong attitude of the established lobbies.

“We planned for 1,000 delegates and when I first mentioned this figure, my staff thought I needed psychiatric treatment,” Ben-Ami said. “We got 1,500.” The under-estimate made for conference rooms so tightly packed that many delegates had to sit on floors and debates were frequently simulcast to spillover rooms.

A second reason for high spirits: Obama’s decision to send his National Security Advisor, James Jones, to make the keynote speech. It broke no new ground but ended with a promise that the Obama administration would be represented at all future J Street conferences.

What better sign that the neophyte group has arrived as a serious participant in the foreign policy debate?

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com)


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