In a small minority of right-thinking observers and journalists who came to see what this new J Street phenomenon was all about, I was eager to see how it related not just to other streams of Jewish opinion, but especially to various pro-Israel and other American Christian communities. Most important would be the likely impact on the U.S. political picture regarding Israel, especially in the Congress. Any faint hopes that J Street would be anything other than an amen chorus for the Obama administration and the Israel left wing were dismissed at once and continually.
From the opening session, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the J-street executive director, seemed to want to have it both ways, assuring his audience that this was nothing new, since there were many “pro-peace’ organizations, while at the same time asserting that this was a new “third way’ between an “Israel right or wrong” approach that he claimed was the main tack of the pro-Israel forces, and the completely anti-Israel approach taken by its enemies. Having advanced this stark and simplistic dichotomy, he, and other speakers over the three day conference, claimed to be both pro-Israel, while not afraid to mention Israel’s problems and misdeeds, and “pro-peace’ (as if any Israelis, after all of the suffering they have endured, are not pro-peace, properly understood). Of course, the “pro-Israel” half of this equation received only scant lip-service. Students at the table where I sat for the first session already were complaining that they had been pressured to include “pro-Israel’ in their motto, against their will, and before long even this pretense fell away, at least for the student adjunct of J-Street, which reportedly dropped it. Peace, seemingly at any price and with only Israel making concessions, especially on “settlements”, was the order of the day throughout the conference.
I heard no speakers make more than a perfunctory mention of Israel needing security in exchange for land concessions. In fact Akiva Eldar of HaAretz had no answer when I asked him, after hearing him criticize Israel’s land takings for security around Israeli settlements, why there were no such belts around Arab settlements.
Christians, conservatives and the GOP came in for harsh criticism, for example, rather curiously in the session on How Jews, Christians, and Muslims Can work Together for Peace, in which the moderator, Ron Young, a Lutheran interfaith activist, slammed Pastor John Hagee, saying his organization should be called “Christians United for the Destruction of Israel”. Later in a panel of congressmen, Rep. bob Filner attacked such conservative, pro-Israel, GOP supporters as Tom Delay, saying they did not know anything about Israel. He repeated the old canard that they are trying to bring on Armageddon, and alleged that they were only pro-Israel for political advantage. After the moderator, Bob Franken, suggested repeatedly that the reasons for support from that quarter should include “monetary” advantage, Filner obligingly agreed and changed the formulation to “for political and monetary” advantage. In a moment of candor, Filner admitted that a key benefit of J-Street will be to give political cover to members of congress who may wish to vote against pro-Israel bills, but have felt constrained by pressure from other pro-Israel groups.
In an odd comment that he repeated several times, Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO-02) urged the audience to deny that there is any “Jewish conspiracy,” afoot, but without any current reference to why he was raising this old historical canard except to deny it.
The lone GOP member on the panel, a Lebanese-American medical doctor, Rep. Charles W. Boustany, Jr. (LA-07) looked a bit uncomfortable at times, for example when he demurred mildly concerning the attacks on his fellow Republicans. He also made an excellent observation in favor of the Congress exercising its constitutional duty as a shaper of foreign policy, which may give hope that he is educable concerning true U.S. national security interests in the Middle East. Finally
I was shocked to hear Franken muse out loud at one point that such conservative Christian supporters in the prior generation were anti-Semitic. No real supporter of Israel would be so cavalier about stereotyping and rejecting, in effect, the members of the largest caucus in the Congress.
Particularly shocking aspects of the conference were the clear emphases on reaching college and university students with this “pro-peace” message, and the use of the media, including theater and films for propaganda to advance their cause.
Occasionally, in answer to oral questions, some truth was elicited, or it became clear that the speakers were unresponsive or amazingly ignorant. Such moments were rare and unusual since most questions had to be written and only softball, on-message questions were selected to be asked. In the panel on “West Bank Settlements, Obstacles on the road to Peace…” received confirmation from Hagit Ofran of Settlement Watch, that the total number of “settlers” is on the order of one half million, including those in Jerusalem.
The remainder of the question: how such a number could ever be evicted and resettled in the event of a “peace” deal like the Saudi (Arab) Peace Initiative went unanswered.
In this panel Akiva Eldar, the HaAretz correspondent, answered a question on U.S. supporters of Israel, suggesting that the tax exempt status of organizations that assist settlements be challenged.
A disconcerting aspect of the conference, personified by some of the key speakers, was the unholy alliance of Iran apologists with the mainly Jewish left wing.
The poster boy for this was Triti Parsi, founder and president of NIAC, the National Iranian American Council, which since has been referenced in the media as an allegedly unregistered lobby and agent for a foreign government, issues to be contested in law. When I asked the panel on Iran: Is Diplomacy Working, which featured Parsi, a brief but detailed question on Iran’s perpetration of incitement to genocide, as charged by H. Con. Res. 21, Rep. Steve Rothmans’s bill that passed the House 411-2 in the last Congress, only Parsi answered, and then to the effect that he “hadn’t read the paper” to which I referred and thus could not answer. Apparently no one on the panel had an opinion on incitement to genocide or whether, as the House clearly thought, Iran’s leaders were guilty of the charge and should be prosecuted.
Most disturbing of all were such official pronouncements as those in the speech of Gen. James Jones, the National Security Advisor. Incredibly, he affirmed that, if he had only one choice of a recommendation to give President Obama, he would name an Israel-Arab peace agreement, since this would solve so many other pressing pending issues. How this dealt with the other seven or eight major security threats I have heard at least one excellent military expert describe was not explained. Thankfully, in touching upon Iran and the need to continue to press Iran to observe the UN Security Council resolutions forbidding nuclear enrichment for weapons development, he did say that “all options were on the table” without elaborating.
Later a resurgent policy advisor, ex-Senator Chuck Hagel, newly named co-chair of the national intelligence advisory council, in the final major address at the conference, reaffirmed the need for an immediate rush to settle the major issues in final status peace talks, and to police the resulting settlement with US and NATO troops interposed between Israel and the new Palestinian state.
Questions as to where such troops would be found, in light of existing constraints on force deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, whether the old, but not so swift, idea of US troops on the Golan Heights would need to be revived as well, and who would cover the major costs of such deployments, estimated by some in hundreds of billions of dollars, in light of the continuing global financial crisis, were among those that went unconsidered.
Amazingly, some of the old tried and true Israel “experts” showed themselves characteristically clueless – or perhaps just too calculating by half in their opinions.
Besides bemoaning all the unfair criticism, as he saw it, of President Obama against which he had to do battle, ex-congressman Mel Levine appeared to think, in answer to a question, that a presidential trip to Israel indeed would help advance the peace process.
On the same panel, Martin Indyk, ex-ambassador to Israel and ex-Middle East assistant secretary of state now at Brookings, agreed it may help. He allowed, if I understood his Australian English, that Israelis like to be “coddled” and that the reason for the unusually low approval of President Obama was not his policy, (for example on “no natural growth of settlements”?), but because Obama was not as warm and friendly in manner as presidents Clinton and Bush had been. So much for the intelligence and insight of the Israeli public, I thought!
I heard from a top lobbyist who represents Arab and oil interests that J-Street conference likely will not diminish what he sees as the “inordinate” influence of AIPAC, but in fact may well stiffen their resolve and commitment, especially for those involved in advancing Israel’s security and well-being in media interviews and the like, such efforts to “blame Israel first,” if not exclusively, by a mainly-Jewish organization, adds to the difficulty, but is by no means disabling.
Well-meaning media listeners and viewers will understand that in every population, there are some who will give aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war, whether through ignorance, mistaken ideology or ill will. The real make-weight politically, as recognized inadvertently by the ham handed criticism and caricatures expressed by some of the conference participants that I have referred to, of the biblically oriented, mainly conservative, Christian (and some Jewish) pro-Israel activists in the public at large and in Congress.
For example, CIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby now in its 20th year, is rapidly increasing its grassroots coverage nationwide.
The US Congress has inked a number of recent initiatives, including the overwhelming, bipartisan, House passage of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s H. Res. 867, a resolution roundly condemning the Goldstone report on Gaza, which J-Street would not endorse, and Chairman Tom Price of the Republican Study Conference‘s recent letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu affirming that Israel’s security is every bit as important as the search for peace and explicitly affirming the rights of Jews to live wherever they please in peace and security, including all of historic Israel.
Following such expressions from Congress as the last cited, the administration has seemed noticeably muted in its criticism of Israel’s “settlements” and the “natural growth” thereof, with Secretary of State Clinton even praising Israel at one point. Senators Inhofe and Lieberman even have introduced a courageous and principled bill to end the seemingly interminable delays in the placement of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, as directed by the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, Congressman Dan Burton has done the same in the House, and other such measures are in play. Of course J-Street participants barely spoke of such Israeli rights, if at all.
Thankfully the US Congress is listening to the beat of a different drum and responding with action, hopefully for all the right reasons and surely so that they will be viewed as doing the constituents’ bidding as the 2010 elections approach. This is among the reasons why, as I left the J-Street conference, I sensed that this was the last hurrah of the leftover hippies in America, or, as Bob Franken called them in the congressional panel, the Woodstock generation come of age, and one of the last forums where the Israeli Left, increasingly out of favor at home, could have a favorable audience.