AJC’s David Harris complains that liberal Zionist groups tried to ‘bully’ and ‘intimidate’ him to take ‘macho’ stand against Israel

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We have been saying for days now that the annexation argument has transformed the Israel lobby. Liberal Zionist organizations such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now are emerging as the new leaders of the Israel lobby because they seized on an issue of great moment and took a firm stance and by lobbying the Democratic Congress and appealing to foreign leaders appear to have forestalled Israel from its determination to annex portions of the West Bank beginning July 1.

While the leading rightwing organizations kept their mouths shut and wavered and have suffered a political collapse in the eyes of the pro-Israel community, for doing nothing as beloved Zion burned.

Today the leader of one of those rightwing groups– the American Jewish Committee — lashed out on a webinar against liberal Zionist organizations for trying to “bully” him and practice “intellectual intimidation” so that the AJC would take a more “macho” stand against Israel.

David Harris never mentioned his enemies by name, but it was clear he meant J Street and Americans for Peace Now, which rose to this occasion and repeatedly called on leading Jewish groups to oppose annexation.

Harris was obviously referring to incidents like this one: Last week the AJC came out with a mealymouthed statement against annexation but assured Israel that it would defend Israel no matter what it does. Hadar Susskind, the head of Americans for Peace Now, responded to the piece by writing, “Delete your organization.”

In his webinar today, David Harris repeatedly slammed the left for having the “arrogant notion that we know better. Or to use that famous phrase, To save Israel from itself. That’s where the AJC parts company…. No it doesn’t mean we have to keep silent but we at AJC have to keep in mind the distribution of risk here.” Israelis are at physical risk from attack; and American Jews who criticize it are not.

Harris then said he was against annexation, but nicely.

The very word annexation itself is a toxic word. Because annexation in our vocabulary is very negative…. Annexation is a hostile word, which is why some Israelis who support this prefer to use the extension of Israeli sovereign law.

From AJC’s perspective– again… we’re friends of Israel, we are independent in our thinking, we will offer our perspective but at the end of the day we recognize it’s not our decision to make. It’s Israel’s decision to make. From our perspective at AJC, we see the costs of the annexation or extension of sovereignty— we see the costs as being very high. We don’t see the benefits. There may be local benefits, political benefits within the domestic Israeli space. We don’t see the benefits. We see instead something that will be used as yet another excuse or pretext by the Palestinians to avoid the peace table…

But Harris said, that’s not good enough for some in the American Jewish community. He’s faced “attempted intellectual intimidation” for not going further.

From our perspective at AJC, we are opposed to what we’re hearing based on our cost benefit analysis. I want to be very clear. On the other hand, there is a separate discussion to be had, and one cannot simply be lumped into a different political category for saying what I’m about to say, although in today’s world that is exactly how some will try and play it. Because in today’s world you have a kind of binary political equation on just about everything, including this– You’re either with us or you’re against it. The moment you’re trying to introduce any other elements or nuance, then you’re immediately in the opposite camp. That’s not AJC, and we’re not going to play into attempted intellectual intimidation. We’re going to defend our space which is to say, No to unilateral steps on the West Bank as are being discussed, in our perspective. At the same time it is fair to ask How long will Israel have to wait for a credible serious partner to sit across the table… and negotiate…

Harris said Israel’s failure to gain peace was not just Benjamin Netanyahu’s issue. Governments of the left and center had also failed. The burden was on the Palestinians, to “show up, seriously, credibly, perseverantly.”

But he went on that these liberal Zionist groups are playing to their donors by taking a “muscular and macho” stance against Israel. And Harris implied that they don’t love Israel enough.

Look there are times that we have disagreed with Israel. How could we not? … What AJC has done and I think it’s well understood in Israel is when there is criticism we try to find the most constructive way to channel the criticism. That means we’re not playing to our bleachers. We’re not going to a group of donors and saying, Look how muscular and macho we are in what we told the Israelis. We’re not hoping that the New York Times or the Washington Post picks up on our opposition to this or that and turns it into a pullquote and a headline. We’re operating from a principle that for us would be referred to as ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel….It’s not an effort to score points, to get attention, it’s not an effort to get patted on the back by other groups in the United States that we hunger for their validation..

So the donors are to Harris’s left! It seems very clear from these remarks that the center of gravity in the pro-Israel Jewish community has shifted from the AJC to J Street.

Harris attacked J Street and other “leftwing” “ideological organizations” and “dogmatists”– though not by name — for supporting the Iran deal in 2015 even when Israel’s leaders said it posed an existential threat to Israel.

Take the Iran issue. The Israeli leadership… came together as one and said the Iran deal as proposed poses an existential threat to the state of Israel. To me this was a defining moment in terms of how to lead the American Jewish community… The Israeli leadership across the board at the very top… said we agree on this, we disagree on everything else.

The ideological organizations weren’t prepared to follow along. So the leftwing groups here even confronted with that fact took recourse in their support for in this case the Obama administration, the assurance of the Obama administration that the Israeli concerns were misplaced and miguided. Did those groups even read the deal? AJC was one of the organizations that came out very clearly, If it’s a matter of existential importance to the state of Israel… we have an obligation to speak out… That’s where I seriously parted company with the dogmatists and the ideologues who couldn’t get out from under the uniform that they wear every day.

He said that the AJC got bullied for trying to introduce “nuance” into the annexation debate.

If we’re really entering into a binary world, with two opposing orthodoxies and no room for conversation in between. you’re either with us or you’re against us. For me intellectually that’s a very frightening world.

The AJC has always tried to inject nuance into our conversation about the U.S.-Israel relationship . That comes from a love of Israel.

I saw for example last week When we tried to introduce some nuance into one of the topical issues of the day, the anti-nuance crowd jumped on us, tried to mischaracterize our position, tried to in a way bully us. They were not going to succeed. … I come from a place of Jewish unity, not disunity…

The Israel lobby is breaking up before our eyes into two branches, liberal Zionist and right Zionist. Each has a political party. For once leading Jewish orgs are speaking in two voices on Israel. This fracturing will foster the politicization of Israel for U.S. politicians.

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The Iran issue is useful as a contrast. Whereas in regards to Iran a “Israel knows what it needs. We don’t have skin in the game” frame of mind is sensible (more or less), it is nonsensical to compare this annexation move with that issue. There the issue was the potential of Iran to develop nukes, a very clear potential existential threat. Here there is no threat, no apparent security bonus, but purely a diplomatic… Read more » The Palestinian Liberation Organization, Press Release, July 2/20 “Dr. Ashrawi welcomes global call by international women leaders against Israeli annexation” “We welcome the letter signed by over 40 international women leaders in response to an appeal by Palestinian women for action to stop annexation and end the occupation. These principled voices of reason provide hope in such dark times and reaffirm women’s leading role in advancing peace, justice, and freedom. This letter highlights the… Read more »