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.

OUT OF TOUCH?
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)

86 comments

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The Palestinians have already conceded enough, Mr. Debusmann. They have been forced to relinquish their rights to land, water, housing, airspace, freedom of movement, dignity and just about everything else you can think of. What more can they possibly concede to the occupier?

The problem with Martin Indyk and AIPAC is that they’re still determined to maintain this stranglehold by portraying both sides as equal in terms of strength. Anyone with a scant understanding of this conflict will see there’s a gross imbalance of power that exists between Israelis and Palestinians.

If the refusniks are able to see, then what exactly is preventing pro-Israeli groups in the US from doing so as well? Besides, Israel’s abysmal treatment of the Palestinians over the last 61 years has led even the most ardent Zionists to question whether the Jewish State has lost its moral compass.

Posted by Nu'man El-Bakri | Report as abusive

I have always heard that the reason the District of Columbia city planners designated no J St was because that was the company commanded by Benedict Arnold

How appropriate !!

Posted by Elliott Dickler | Report as abusive

On the other side Israelis not willing to compromise now should meditate about the fact that for each new president it is politically increasingly difficult to be sympathetic to Israel, and increasingly easy to be sympathetic to palestinians.

Posted by Albert | Report as abusive

Ben-Ami has been passing out propaganda statements that are more disingenuous than true.This is a group formed with Soros money to undermine the existence of Israel,
imperiling the Jewish People.It is to usurp AIPAC, however, its goals are far different.AIPAC does not formulate a policy and try to impose it unto the Administration and Congress. That is the intent of J Street.No less than 17 speakers canceled once they discovered the true anti-Israel agenda. Martin Indyk is simply trying to keep some kind of position to be a player.
James Jones is known to be highly anti-Israel.So, the fact, that he would attend a Soros supported event is not a surprise.
It is no longer in doubt that Obama’s administration is the most anti-Semitic, anti-Israel administration in American History. J Street has been discredited throughout the U.S. Jewish Community just as Obama has lost a huge amount of the original 78% of the Jewish Community that voted for him.Many view the Emanuel brothers as subversive to the US and the Jews.Have no doubt but that they are an embarrassment.

Posted by Carol | Report as abusive

The naming loss of J Street was actually featured in an episode of NCIS. The symbol for I and J in Old English was so similar people kept getting lost on the streets, so the city planners just did away with the J. A marvelously practical solution for D.C. Amazing, yes?

=+Bob D.

Posted by Bob D | Report as abusive

What a great organization, J-Street.

So we have an anti-Israeli gov’t group here in the US, where do I find an anti-US gov’t group here in the US?

Problem with AIPAC is now there campaign contributions are so small compared to Banks/Oil companies that they have lost their voice and their ability to buy off politicians on either side of the aisle.

You want to get this gov’t to do something for you? Be ready to spend, that’s how you get the TARP’s and stimulus funds going in your favor.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

The Israelis have already conceded enough, Mr. Debusmann. They have been forced to relinquish their rights to land, water, housing, airspace, freedom of movement, dignity and just about everything else you can think of in Gaza. What more can they possibly concede to the war-monger?

The Palestinians abysmal treatment of the Israelis over the last 61 years has led even the most ardent Hamas to question whether the Arab confederacy has ever possessed a moral compass.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

President Obama is attempting to bring balance to our relations in the Middle East and the Israeli public apparently are rejecting our support. Israel apparently believes that because they hate Palestinians, that the US is obligated to hate Palestinians also. But it just isn’t so for the majority of Americans. President Obama and the American majority want to see peaceful cooperation with all members of the International Community. Why should Israel get the most aid and support from the USA? Of course the Middle East hates us…look at the incredibly lopsided support the USA has been giving Israel all these years. Naturally, deep resentment has built up with the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern peoples. Israel is armed with American weapons…and of course fear and mistrust have been building for years. The problems in the Middle East will never be solved until the World community sees the situation for what it is in fact and breaks through its denial.

Posted by John Doe | Report as abusive

How ironic: Obama is waging wars against two Muslim countries, killing many Muslims daily, twisting Iran’s arm to give up its rights to nuclear power, and making no serious demands on Israel to end the illegal and immoral occupation or the barbaric siege of Gaza. Yet, that is just not enough for Israelis. That pariah nation would do itself and the world a favor if it replaced its 20th century paranoid worldview with a 21st century one and recognize that it–and its nuclear arsenal–is the greatest threat to peace in the world today. The US would not have invaded Iraq were it not for Israel, and now Israel is pushing for another bloody war with Iran. Meanwhile, it blockades Gaza and prevents 1.5 million Palestinians from receiving food, water, and medicine. This is a modern-day holocaust, and Israel is a nation run by war criminals.

Posted by Donna | Report as abusive

While some Israeli actions have served US interests, the balance sheet is clear: Israel’s use of American aid consistently damages the United States, harms our economy, and endangers Americans.

In fact, this extremely negative outcome was so predictable that even before Israel’s creation virtually all State Department and Pentagon experts advocated forcefully against supporting the creation of a Zionist state in the Middle East. President Harry Truman’s reply: “I am sorry gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

Through the years, our aid to Israel has not resulted in a reliable ally.

In 1954 Israel tried to bomb US government offices in Egypt, intending to pin this on Muslims.

In 1963 Senator William Fulbright discovered that Israel was using a series of covert operations to funnel our money to pro-Israel groups in the US, which then used these funds in media campaigns and lobbying to procure even more money from American taxpayers.

In 1967 Israeli forces unleashed a two-hour air and sea attack against the USS Liberty, causing 200 casualties. While Israel partisans claim that this was done in error, this claim is belied by extensive eyewitness evidence and by an independent commission reporting on Capitol Hill in 2003 chaired by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer.

In 1973 Israel used the largest airlift of US materiel in history to defeat Arab forces attempting to regain their own land, triggering the Arab oil embargo that sent the US into a recession that cost thousands of Americans their jobs.

During its 1980s Lebanon invasion, Israeli troops engaged in a systematic pattern of harassment of US forces brought in as peacekeepers that created, according to Commandant of Marines Gen. R. H Barrow, “life-threatening situations, replete with verbal degradation of the officers, their uniform and country.”

Through the years, Israel has regularly spied on the US. According to the Government Accounting Office, Israel “conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the United States of any ally.” Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard: “It is difficult for me to conceive of greater harm done to national security,” And the Pollard case was just the tip of a very large iceberg; the most recent operation coming to light involves two senior officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s powerful American lobbying organization.

Bad as the above may appear, it pales next to the indirect damage to Americans caused by our aid to Israel. American funding of Israel’s egregious violations of Palestinian human rights is consistently listed as the number one cause of hostility to Americans.

While American media regularly cover up Israeli actions, those of us who have visited the region first-hand witness a level of US-funded Israeli cruelty that makes us weep for our victims and fear for our country. While most Americans are uninformed on how Israel uses our money, people throughout the world are deeply aware that it is Americans who are funding Israeli crimes.

The 9/11 Commission notes that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “animus towards the United States stemmed from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” The Economist reports that ” the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the most powerfully recurrent theme in bin Laden’s speeches.”

US aid to Israel has destabilized the Middle East; propped up a national system based on ethnic and religious discrimination; enabled unchecked aggression that has, on occasion, been turned against Americans themselves; funded arms industries that compete with American companies; supported a pattern of brutal dispossession that has created hatred of the US; and resulted in continuing conflict that in the past seven and a half years has cost the lives of more than 2000 Palestinian children and 119 Israeli children.

By providing massive funding to Israel, no matter what it does, American aid is empowering Israeli supremacists who believe in a never-ending campaign of ethnic cleansing; while disempowering Israelis who recognize that policies of morality, justice, and rationality are the only road to peace.

Posted by Alison Weir | Report as abusive

Israel and AIPAC is the stranglehold on American foreign relations. It takes money, military aide, directs foreign policy and the word is getting to the population around the control they have over media presentations. Bob Simon’s video on 60 minutes and Jon Stewart’s interview this week with Anna Baltzer show that there is a moral fiber in the Jewish people that transcends the immoral oppression of the Palestinians.
Obama doesn’t want peace. That was politician talk. His first decision was to pick Rahm Emmanuel who served the Israeli military – not the US. Obama already declared Jeruselum the capital of Israel as the goal before the knesset. Stop money and military aide to Israel now! It’s destroying the US. Schumer, Lieberman, Biden and the rest don’t see the forest through the trees. The

Posted by Johnny B | Report as abusive

President Obama is attempting to bring balance to our relations in the Middle East and the Israeli public apparently are rejecting our support. Israel apparently believes that because they hate Palestinians, that the US is obligated to hate Palestinians also. But it just isn\’t so for the majority of Americans. President Obama and the American majority want to see peaceful cooperation with all members of the International Community. Why should Israel get the most aid and support from the USA? Of course the Middle East hates us…look at the incredibly lopsided support the USA has been giving Israel all these years. Naturally, deep resentment has built up with the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern peoples. Israel is armed with American weapons…and of course fear and mistrust have been building for years. The problems in the Middle East will never be solved until the World community sees the situation for what it is in fact and breaks through its denial.

Posted by John Doe | Report as abusive

Please give me a BREAK! The Israeli government has no intention of dealing honestly with the Palestinians. Israel will never deal with the Palestinians until the USA no longer needs Middle East oil. Once that happens, Israel will be left to sink or swim on its own. That gives the state of Israel about 25 years, more or less before it must come to grips with the way it has treated the Palestinians since 1948. My guess is the Arab world will have little incentive to practice diplomacy with the Israelis from that point on. Were the Israelis to remove their current practices and deal with the rising population of Palestinians in a more egalitarian manor, possibly in 15 years or so, there MIGHT be enough good will available to Israel, that the Jews wouldn’t be pushed into the sea. I doubt that there is yet the incentive for such actions. It’s a shame that the Israelis have used the enmity and violence perpetrated against them to do the same, if not worse, to the Palestinians.
Oh, those desert religions and the “tangled web they weave as first they practice to decieve”.

Posted by Dirk | Report as abusive

Obama won’t be the first President that was unable to get Israelis and Palestinians to kiss and make up.

Maybe we’ll see some new ideas out of J Street but the whole world has strained over this problem for 40 years. One would think the begining would be a 20 year cease fire, let everyone age and cool off. Remove old barriers in 4 year increments if the cease fire sticks.

Both sides resort too quickly to violence.

So Good Luck J Street, glad its not my job.

The amazing thing is the huge percentages of Jews and Catholics who voted for this anti-family, leftist, radical pro-abortion indecisive moron. This is the guy who is so indecisive, that 60% of his time in the senate, he voted “present”. Anyone who was not too lazy to check his voting record knew he would be bad for the economy and future of America. Now the Jews can see he isn’t the messiah. lol. Maybe its not too late, since most of the people who wanted to make history will not come out to vote in the upcoming senate and governor’s races.

Posted by Loredozane | Report as abusive

I don’t understand why there are so may LEFT WING Jews. Reportedly 88% voted for Hope & Change, I wonder how that working out for them.

Posted by lel2007 | Report as abusive

Where’s the compromise point between total destruction of the Jewish state and a Palestinian state? Do we suppose America will defend Taiwan from communist Chine? Gird your loin Israel, don’t look to obama, you stand alone, very alone.

Posted by lel2007 | Report as abusive

This is a question for American taxpayers: Do you think it’s a good thing that your government has been spending around $350,000 every single hour on aid to Israel since 1985? This is a number extrapolated from a figure given by the Congressional Research Service: about $3 billion a year. In which way have you, the American taxpayer, benefited from this spending? Why is Israel, which has fewer people that New York City, the biggest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid?

Posted by Arshad | Report as abusive

Israelis and American Jews need to get a clue. Historically, anyone in the US who so much as questions Israeli actions in the mid-east is immediately branded an anti-semite. The Jews and their stranglehold on the US Congress are doing nothing to promote peace. Any US President or member of congress who does not cow-tow to the Israeli agenda is also blacklisted.
As China, Russia, India and Brazil continue to increase economically and in importance in the world, the Israelis and American Jews need to realize that their days of unconditional protection from the USA are waning. I doubt any of those countries, nor the rest of the world will be so sympathetic to the Israeli point of view. There is nobody in the world, other than the extreme right wing in the US, who buys into the “Israel is the victim” thinking. Israel needs to strike while the iron is hot and make peace with the Palestinians. The window of opportunity is closing, the US will not be able to protect Israel forever.

“Historically, anyone in the US who so much as questions Israeli actions in the mid-east is immediately branded an anti-semite.”

A fair point. But then you go and say:

“The Jews and their stranglehold on the US Congress are doing nothing to promote peace. Any US President or member of congress who does not cow-tow to the Israeli agenda is also blacklisted.”

So what you are essentially saying is that you believe the Jews control congress, and the presidential elections of America.

How isn’t that anti-semitic?

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive