Thanks in part to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, the U.S. government rarely gets tough with Israel, even on issues like Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, which Washington views as harmful to the peace process. A new lobby group formed last month, J Street, wants to change that. Founded by a number of liberal Jews, J Street wants to see the administration press Israel not only for an end to settlement construction, but also a real peace effort between Israel and Syria and possibly talks between Israel and Hamas. The group's name is a play on the political geography of downtown Washington, where K street is the traditional hub of lobbyists and J street doesn't exist. Newsweek correspondent Dan Ephron sat down recently with the group's executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami to discuss the organization's agenda. (Article continued below...)
Newsweek: What data do you have that suggests Jews are dovish on matters of peace between Israel and the Arabs?
Ben-Ami: I think on most polls, no matter how they're worded, you find plurality or majority support for the notion that there should be a two-state solution, that there has to be an end to the occupation and a Palestinian state. So I think the gap we're trying to fill is whether that needs to be the centerpiece of American policy towards Israel or just an afterthought. And I think if you look at the websites of the other groups, they'll pay lip service to peace and to a two-state solution but to our mind, it's actually an essential element of a pro-Israel agenda.
To what extent is the formation of J Street a response to AIPAC?
It's actually not a response to simply AIPAC and it's by no means an anti-AIPAC group. What we're responding to is that for too long there's been an alliance between the neo-cons, the radical right of the Christian Zionist movement and the far-right portions of the Jewish community that has really locked up what it means to be pro-Israel. We're responding more to that than to any one organization.
You talk about the idea that AIPAC is not centrally for a two-state solution but there certainly have been and are people in the leadership who express support for a Palestinian state.
I think if you ask Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former foreign minister of Israel, or you ask Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the former head of the IDF (the Israeli military) what's the single most important thing for Israel to do to ensure its security for another 60 years, they would say 'we've got to end this conflict. We have to have defined borders and an internationally-recognized end.' They would put it at the top of the list of Israel's needs. And I don't think any of the existing groups at the moment put that at the top of their agenda.
You said in a recent article that when the U.S. closes its eyes to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank it's analogous to a person allowing his friend to drive home drunk from a bar but not only that-to actually give him the keys to your Porsche and a shot of tequila for the road. Now one might argue that the Porsche in your analogy is the nearly three billion dollars the U.S. gives Israel in aid every year. Would you condition continued aid on a genuine freeze in U.S. settlements?
Well, the United States clearly has a lot of influence on Israel because of the nature of the relationship and if you're really serious about stopping the settlements and about what American policy is--American policy says no more settlements, no more expansion and take down those outposts--if we're serious about it, then we need to start to act serious. And it's time to act like the big brother or the parent and to say 'enough is enough and we're going to take the car keys if you don't stop driving drunk.' We're not talking about simply business as usual. There's got to be some sort of intervention here where the U.S. says to Israel the time has come to finally do something.
You're suggesting actually withholding aid?
No, I'm not saying that. I want to be really clear. I'm saying that when the U.S. president closes the door with the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. president has a lot more chips to play than any other person who closes that door. And within Israel, the Israeli prime minister may have a tough time because of their domestic politics fulfilling their commitments. It's going to be a lot easier if they say to their coalition partners and to the rest of the government, 'I have to do this because the president of the United States is telling me to do it.' And it's time for the president to know that there's a group of people here who recognize that that is not only in Israel's best interests, it's in the U.S.'s best interests. We've got to step up and start to make this a more serious, meaningful policy.
One now hears from time to time about some Israelis who feel their government should be talking to Hamas (the main Islamic Palestinian group that aspires in its charter to Israel's destruction). The consensus in the administration here is that you don't negotiate with terrorist groups. What's your position?
Well, it's the same silliness that the only people you talk to when you want to make peace are your friends.... We couldn't have negotiated an end to the arms race with the Soviet Union if we didn't talk to them. We couldn't have ended peacefully the conflict in Northern Ireland if the two sides hadn't talk to each other. The notion that you're going to pursue peace without talking to people with whom you have disputes is ludicrous... We don't support Hamas. We reject their beliefs, we reject their actions but it doesn't mean you shouldn't be engaging in diplomacy. That's foreign policy 101.
What common ground would there be?
The common ground you have is with the Palestinian people. And when you put the question to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, about a real solution, you still get majority support on both sides [for two states]. And as much as Hamas's leadership may well be ideologically motivated, [it] is also, in the end, now a political entity. And if they want to continue being in power and have the support of their people, they're going to have to respond to the will of their people as well. So having that kind of offer on the table is going to help push Hamas and their leaders as well.
And I imagine J Street welcomes the announcement of indirect talks between Israel and Syria. But critics of the talks argue that Israel is essentially undermining an effort by this administration to isolate Damascus.
J Street disagrees with the Bush administration's approach to dealing with Syria by attempting to isolate it. We believe a far more effective policy would be to try to coax it out of Iran's orbit into engagement with the west and other moderate Arab influences. To that end, we support the Israeli decision to follow its own assessment of the best path to follow.
Can you give me an example of an issue that AIPAC has taken a position on over the years where your position might be different?
I would assume that the Hamas question would be one. I think it applies to Iran. There's no question that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmedinijad is a deranged man who is leading his country off a cliff. But once again we're sort of giving the car a push through the types of policies we're following. We're not denying in any way at J Street that the man is a threat and out of his mind and that the things that he's saying are dangerous and the pursuit of a nuclear weapon by someone like that is intolerable. The question is how do you stop him? And in our view, we think you don't stop him by saber-rattling and only wielding a large stick. You have to have some sort of engagement, some sort of a carrot that not only entices that actual government but makes sure that other forces within Iran know there's an alternative.
In that case, here's a hypothetical question: If Israel ends up attacking Iran to try to put an end to its nuclear program, what would your position be?
I think if it were as easy as that, if it were really possible to launch a simple attack and end the nuclear threat, I don't think we'd be talking about it, I think it would have happened already. It's kind of like saying, would you support Israel trying to go into southern Lebanon to take out Hezbullah? Well, in theory it sounds great. But we saw the reality. You can't go into Lebanon and defeat Hezbullah militarily just as you probably can't go into Gaza and probably defeat Hamas militarily.
But my question is might J Street find itself in a situation where it would be lobbying on an issue that would be counter to what the Israeli government is doing?
Oh, absolutely. We have absolutely no problem taking a position that says the actions and policies of the Israeli government are counterproductive and not in the best interests in our opinion of either Israel or the United States. And I think the reticence to stand up and take those positions has been a real absence in America and one that we're putting an end to.... And by taking these positions we enable a better political and policy debate here in the U.S.
You'll have to face, I imagine, Israelis who will say, 'wait a second, you don't live here, you don't send your children to the military here, you don't pay taxes. What right do you have to dictate or even to influence the debate?'
I think that's extremely fair [to argue]. But I think as long as the situation in Israel and Palestine is directly related to recruitment by extremist forces, by Al Qaeda, of the terrorists who then come here, I think it is an issue that has ramifications here. And I think it also has ramifications for the American-Jewish community and the perception of its role in the creation of foreign policy here is important. To the extent that we quietly stand back and allow policy to be driven in a certain direction, in the long run that's not going to be good for the American-Jewish community either.
Unlike AIPAC, you guys will actually endorse and raise money for candidates. How many candidates will you endorse this fall and can you give us one example?
We're probably going to endorse a few dozen candidates.... Of that, we're going to have a very limited number for which we actively bundle money and try to make a significant investment in a handful of races.
How much money would it amount to per candidate?
On record, I've said something like $50,000 per race for the races we actively get engaged in.
And what's the process for deciding who gets your support?
We'll interview candidates, we'll see how they fall on our issues, we'll gauge their willingness to say publicly they're in agreement with us, and if they are, we will consider them.
Regarding Sen. Barack Obama: Why in your mind are Jewish voters wary of his candidacy? And is J Street working in any way to promote his campaign?
J Street has not yet endorsed in the presidential campaign. However, we can say that the premise of your question and frankly of the news coverage of Jewish support for Obama is flawed. While a small number of primarily older Jews appear to have concerns about Sen. Obama that he is working to address concerns I might add primarily based on campaigns of disinformation online intended to sow fear--it is important not to lose sight of the fact that an overwhelming majority of American Jews, by a factor of 2 to 1 in the recent Gallup Poll, favor Sen. Obama over Sen. [John] McCain. Jewish voters as a whole are not 'wary' of his campaign and it is a mistake for the press to be framing the situation this way based on a small number of anecdotal stories. By any definition in American politics, Sen. Obama enjoys overwhelming support in the American Jewish community and is the choice of the mainstream of the community in a match-up with McCain.
What's your budget and where does the money come from?
Our operating budget for 2008 is $1.5 million. We now have several hundred donors, some large, some small. Small online donors are starting to come in through our website.... We're hoping the notion that a large number of small donors can begin to change the dynamic the way it has with Obama's campaign and with groups like MoveOn.org will apply to this issue as well.
Have you read the Walt Mearsheimer book [titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy] and what's your view on it?
I have read it and I think that it's relatively simplistic. I think one thing they certainly get right is that there is a problem here and it is the problem that I alluded to earlier, which is that there is an array of forces that have combined to hold American policy hostage. But Ithink they overplay the importance of any one group. It's not purely a group of people who are American Jews who are interested in Israel. It's a broader array of the neo-cons and their view of the
world and the Christian Zionists and their view of eternity together with some relatively conservative Jewish leaders.
Your father was part of the Revisionist movement in Israel, which by today's standards would be something like the hawkish Likud party. What would he say about J Steet if he were alive?
I hope that his view would be that he's happy I really do still care about the state of Israel and that I share with him the hope that this is a state that will one day find peace and will find its place in the community of nations. We probably disagree on the path of how to get there but I think we share the same goal.
There's a sector of the Jewish community that refers to your initiative as a betrayal. How does that affect you?
I think it's unfortunate to resort to name-calling. I have no problem having an argument on the merits. This is a democracy and we have every right to say these things.