A J Street ‘ambassador’ says group must leave lobby and ally with ‘foreign policy establishment’

Jeff Warner, a retired geologist and member of LA Jews for Peace, attended the J Street conference in its entirety last week as an "ambassador" of the new organization (he got five others to register for the conference). More bio at bottom of this piece.

J Street’s first national convention in Washington, DC last week was uplifting and exciting on one hand, but frustrating and disappointing on the other.

The J Street convention was uplifting and exciting because J Street represents a new Jewish voice in Washington that is distinctly more progressive than the established Israel lobby. 

Attendance exceeded expectations, showing that there really is a large group of Jewish Americans who are dissatisfied with the traditional Jewish political organizations.  They feel unrepresented, and are looking to J Street to represent them.  J Street leadership’s goal was 1,000 attendees.  From the way registration was going, I guessed they would miss that goal by a significant margin.  In fact, over 1,500 people registered – 50% over the goal.  That lead to a logistics problem of  not enough seating room in plenary and breakout session.  Almost every session was standing-room only, even on Tuesday when there were changes to larger rooms.  All-in-all J Street handled the unexpectedly large crowd quite well.

Progressive Jewish Americans who support a Palestinian state alongside Israel flocked to J Street as an alternative to the main-line Jewish organizations that form the core of the Israeli lobby.  These people are fed-up with groups like AIPAC and ADL that lobby Congress and the Administration in their names, for a right-wing, Likud position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they don’t support. 

J Street is on the Washington political map.  With better than expected attendance, J Street broke the Israel lobby lock on Jewish access to American politics.  The keynote address was given by General James Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor.  Jones said “…you can be sure that this Administration will be represented at all other future J Street conferences."  Besides Jones, about 148 Congress persons signed-on to the J Street host committee, about 45 attended the conventions dinner, and six made presentations from the podium.  Quite a good showing by an organization in existence for only 18 months old.

J  Street is also on the Israeli political maps.  The conference was attended by eleven present and former Knesset members led by Haim Ramon (former Vice-Prime Minister under Ehud Olmert) and Ami Ayalon (former head of Shin Bet).

The J Street convention was frustrating and disappointing because J Street is not as progressive as most of the attendees wanted, and is not that distinct a voice to counter the established Israeli lobby.   

Conference attendees were clearly to the left of J Street leadership as judged by the choice of presenters and J Street’s public statements on the Gaza war, the Goldstone Report, and other issues.  The J Street base is left-leaning; not so J Street leadership.  This was apparent by which statements from the podium elicited cheers, and which did not.  The audience sat silent at calls for sanctions on Iran and that the Goldstone report was biased, and even booed when Goldstone was personally attacked.  In contrast, the audience cheered wildly at calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, for human rights for all, and for a strong American hand in achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis.     

Street’s political position was not a surprise.  J Street was formed as a political amalgamation of Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.  As such, J Street has the politics of those groups – namely that: (1) a two-state solution is in Israel’s interest, (2) the occupation is a barrier to peace, (3) a Palestinian state must be economically viable, and (4) never seriously criticize Israel.  This puts J Street just to the left of the Israel lobby (which itself has a range of positions).

Attendees by and large agreed with points 1, 2, and 3, but a large fraction of attendees reject point 4.  The difference on willingness to criticize Israel reflects the prime concern of the speakers and the attendees.  Many speakers appear driven by their Zionism, and openly expressed their “love of Israel.”  In contrast, many in the audience appear driven by their Jewish ethic of universal justice, and are offended by the occupation in all its manifestations including settlements expropriating Palestinian land, Palestinian house demolitions, the siege of Gaza, and the killing of nearly 1,000 civilians during the Gaza bombardment.  I heard the occupation described as “an Israel boot on the Palestinian neck.” 

Completely missing from the above discussion, and from the conference itself, were Jewish and semi-Jewish peace groups like Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace, Americans Jews for a Just Peace, and U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. 

The difference between J Street leadership and conference attendees is illustrated by different reactions to a resolution just introduced into the House of Representatives – H.Res.-867 – that aims to kill and bury the Goldstone report.  The official J Street statement (http://www.jstreet.org/blog/?p=697) does not oppose the resolution, although it calls for it to be modified.  Many attendees would find the resolution offensive and want it killed.  The resolution was not a talking point on the last day of the conference when half the attendees went to Capitol Hill to lobby their Congressmen.  

There was a general acceptance at the conference that the Israel-Palestine peace process is in grid-lock, and that any forward progress relies on an active United States role.  Many speakers called on the Obama Administration to formally propose a detailed peace plan.  The idea is that neither party “can say no” to an American sponsored. plan.  A distinction is made between an American peace plan (which cannot be denied), and the American push for a settlement freeze (that was rejected by Israel).   

The only attempt to tie U.S. policy in Israel-Palestine into the broader U.S. goals in the Middle East focused on Iran.  The assertion was made, and generally accepted, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will make it easier to contain Iran.  There was no talk of containing terrorism or assuring the free flow of oil.  

J Street is here to stay.  But I am not optimistic that it will enable a significant breakthrough towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fact is that Israeli leadership across the Israeli political spectrum is not ready for a Palestinian state that is economically viable and politically sovereign.  In spite of Israeli public opinion favoring a two-state solution, Israeli leadership still seems to be working for a greater Israel that includes much of the West Bank.  Until that attitude changes, there is no chance of real progress towards a two-state solution. 

Many activists believe that the only route to change runs through Washington – that the United States must make its diplomatic, financial, and military support for Israel conditional on Israel making significant progress towards peace, or directly pressure Israel into making concessions for peace.  But the J Street position does not support either pressure on Israel, nor reduction in the broad, unconditional United Support for Israel.  And without such action, prospects for a change in the Israeli political climate are nil, and the prospects for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations nonexistent. 

The United States foreign policy establishment was hardly mentioned during the J Street conference, but it is a major player in developing American policy towards the Israel and Palestine.  The foreign policy establishment is concerned with the “strategic interests of the United States,” namely containing terrorism, spreading democracy, and assuring the free flow of oil.  To that end they advocate for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The idea is that as long as the conflict is unresolved, United States‘ ability to pursue its goals in the Middle East is constrained.  This idea was enunciated by the Iraq Study Group, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mearsheimer and Walt, and others, and President Obama has said as much several times. 

Today the tension between the foreign policy establishment and the Israel lobby, with no significant deviation by J Street, tilts toward the side of the Israeli lobby’s effort to preserve the status quo.  But eventually the “price” of unconditional support for Israel will become too great, and there will be a change in American policy.  We will see the United States finally become a truly “honest broker,” and the dynamics of Middle East peace will finally change.  I hope that does not come too late for a two-state solution. 

Warner is active in LA Jews for Peace, Jews for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians, Americans for Peace Now, and Cousins Club of Orange County. He organized street demonstrations against the Israeli siege of Gaza since late 2007, and against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza during the December-January massacre. In 2006 Warner worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding a Palestinian home on the West Bank demolished by Israel. In July Warner was a member of Viva Palestina, a humanitarian mission to Gaza that consisted of 175 Americans.

About Jeff Warner

Jeff Warner is a Jewish peace activist in Los Angeles. He is active in LA Jews for Peace, Jews for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians, Americans for Peace Now, and Cousins Club of Orange County. He organized street demonstrations against the Israeli siege of Gaza since late 2007, and against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza during the December-January massacre. Warner is a retired geologist.
Posted in Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine, US Politics

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. GalenSword says:

    Personally, I am more concerned about the damage that the Israel Lobby does to the American political and economic system.

    As far as I am concerned any American Jew that refuses to support the position described in Hang ‘em High wants to protect Jewish privilege that gives impunity to Jewish Zionist plutocracy and intellegentsia while it creates a police state for Muslim and Arab Americans as well as potentially other critics of Israel.

    • Citizen says:

      I agree.

      “But eventually the “price” of unconditional support for Israel will become too great, and there will be a change in American policy. We will see the United States finally become a truly “honest broker,” and the dynamics of Middle East peace will finally change.”

      The real question is, how can the MSM be made to discuss the invisible Israeli elephant in our living room?

      • Chaos4700 says:

        The answer is, they won’t, and as a result corporate media will become increasingly irrelevant. The collapse of major newspapers and the precipitous drop in ratings for long-establish news outlets like CNN is only the beginning.

  2. Jeff Warner writes,

    “The J Street convention was uplifting and exciting because J Street represents a new Jewish voice in Washington that is distinctly more progressive than the established Israel lobby. ”
    (…)
    “The J Street convention was frustrating and disappointing because J Street is not as progressive as most of the attendees wanted, and is not that distinct a voice to counter the established Israeli lobby.”
    (…)
    “J Street is here to stay. But I am not optimistic that it will enable a significant breakthrough towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

    Right, right, and right: In a nutshell, that describes the matter pretty well. Except that J Street is not “distinctly more progressive than the established Israel lobby.” It is a soft-line extension of the same Lobby. All the available evidence indicates that the main purpose of J Street’s leaders and sponsors is to give progressive American Jews a vehicle through which to express their “love for Israel”. A secondary purpose is to influence policy in the direction of some sort of nebulous “two-state solution” designed to serve Israel’s “true” interests – whatever those might be.

    The conspicuous limitations of J Street are two-fold: It is ethnically-based and it is Zionist. There is nothing wrong at all with having progressive organizations that are exclusively or primarily Jewish work for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. More power to them. The problem is that, working alone, they won’t be able to accomplish their declared objectives. The entrenched Israel Lobby, backed up by a Jewish power structure that is overwhelmingly Zionist, is much too strong for them politically.

    Progressive, non-Zionist or moderately Zionist Jews need another place to go. The same is true of their non-Jewish counterparts.

    I’ll come back and complete this comment shortly.

  3. Citizen says:

    Were Kucinich and Paul invited?

  4. Citizen says:

    Time to get behind BDS and cutting off foreign aid to Israel. J-St is no better than AIPAC in this most important respect.
    What’s the best organization to join, and financially support?

    link to homo-sapien-underground.blogspot.com

    • potsherd says:

      That’s what I’m trying to decide now.

      Leaning towards If Americans Knew.

      • Chaos4700 says:

        I’ll agree with you there. It’s one of the most well-done anti-occupation sites out there. I’m also a big support of the US Campaign to End the Occupation. They’re organizing some very practical, effective strategies for getting information out and mobilizing people.

      • Dan Kelly says:

        I second If Americans Knew. Alison Weir and company do excellent work. The presentation is especially appealing: it’s professional and straightforward. They don’t mince words, and they don’t fool around with emotional appeals. Just the facts.

  5. Citizen says:

    Time to get behind BDS and cutting off foreign aid to Israel. J-St is no better than AIPAC in this most important respect.
    What’s the best organization to join, and financially support?

    link to homo-sapien-underground.blogspot.com

  6. Colin Murray says:

    … Israeli leadership still seems to be working for a greater Israel that includes much of the West Bank.

    There is no partner for peace on the Israeli side. They will have to be FORCED, and how likely is that?

    I hope [the United States finally becoming a truly “honest broker”] does not come too late for a two-state solution.

    It is already too late. Anyone who thinks otherwise should look at a map of Israeli colonies in the West Bank to dispel that illusion. The Israeli government can’t or won’t even properly reign in their colonists who kill and terrorize Palestinians. There is absolutely no way they are going to go in and root them out of their colonies.

  7. Kathleen says:

    “J Street is here to stay. But I am not optimistic that it will enable a significant breakthrough towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

    Aipac light as far as I can see. Heard Netta and Maya (young Refuseniks)speak in D.C. They did not think J street was so great. A diversion of sorts is how they described what they have seen and heard about the group.

    Here is what Code Pink is doing tomorrow in D.C.

    link to codepinkalert.org

    November 2, 2009

    Dear [[supporter.First_Name]],

    Judge Richard Goldstone, a highly respected jurist from South Africa whose credentials are impeccable and who is a self-declared Zionist, lead a U.N. fact-finding mission to Gaza in April to investigate what had happened there during “Operation Cast Lead.” The 575-page report Goldstone Report that resulted from his investigations, accusing both Israel and Hamas of war crimes violations, was immediately attacked by the Israeli government as biased and unfair.

    Last week in a political move of the most cynical kind, Representatives Berman (D-CA) and Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), leadership of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, introduced H Res 867, a bill that reads as though it were drafted by AIPAC, which it might well have been. H Res 867 is calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the “Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” in multilateral fora.

    Call your Members of Congress TODAY at 202-224-3121 and tell them to vote NO on this flawed legislation. If they have already co-sponsored the bill (check here) and tell them to withdraw their support. You can also email your Representative directly here!

  8. Nolan says:

    J street, much like other US organizations promoting the two state solution is irrelevant at this point. I say this because the two state solution or the end of the occupation which they promote is a non-starter at this point.

    If Israeli forces suddenly evacuated the West Bank and withdrew to the Green Line this week, the two state solution might have a chance.

    In 10 years time (perhaps sooner) Israel will be teetering between committing mass genocide against the Palestinians and the end of an exclusively Jewish state.

    Barring a game-changer, a regional war involving several actors, the one state solution is inevitable at this point.

  9. Interesting essay that deals with two somewhat different issues. First, J Street, AIPAC, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Jewish Bundists…nothing new here.

    That aside, here we’re back to the diffreence between establishment individuals and a cohesive group that dominates it:

    Today the tension between the foreign policy establishment and the Israel lobby, with no significant deviation by J Street, tilts toward the side of the Israeli lobby’s effort to preserve the status quo. But eventually the “price” of unconditional support for Israel will become too great, and there will be a change in American policy.

    The only way that changes IMO is when you remove the quotes from price. Then we’ll have two groups with conflicting interests, and lots of policies will change.

  10. “Today the tension between the foreign policy establishment and the Israel lobby, with no significant deviation by J Street, tilts toward the side of the Israeli lobby’s effort to preserve the status quo. ” (Warner)

    The “foreign policy establishment” that Warner apparently has in mind is the “realist” school, typified by conservatives like Scowcroft, James Baker, Brzezinski, Andrew Bacevich, Mearsheimer and Walt. But the segment of the foreign policy establishment with the greatest influence over the last eight years has been the neoconservatives, exemplified by Zionists such as Robert Kagan, Fred Kagan, Elliot Cohen, and Elliott Abrams. These neocon foreign policy specialists have been an integral part of the Zionist Power Structure. They help give the Israel Lobby a veneer of intellectual respectability.

    If a non-ethnic, non-Zionist lobby advocating for US national interests in Middle Eastern policy, independent of the disastrous “special relationship” with Israel, is ever to become a reality, it will require substantial leadership from the non-Zionist foreign policy establishment. Having large numbers of respected foreign policy experts speak out in the media for Palestinian rights and against Israeli policies will be an essential element in creating a broad-based lobby to combat political Zionism in America.

    What will it take to turn a major portion of the American foreign policy establishment overtly against Israel?