Friday, October 23, 2009

Why what J Street Stands for is far from what most Israelis want

Miles from Main Street

The decision by Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, to decline an invitation to J Street's first policy conference next week has drawn criticism from the organization's senior adviser Colette Avital, a former Knesset deputy speaker. In an op-ed published Thursday in The Jerusalem Post, Avital argued that J Street is a positive force because it provides a constructive framework for Jews uncomfortable with Israeli policies.

Certainly, for Jews or Israelis who, confronted with Iran's pursuit of atomic weapons oppose setting "artificial deadlines" and "harsher sanctions," J Street can be a comfortable political home.

J Street's stance on a two-state solution is, on the face of it, in harmony with the Israeli consensus. On closer examination, however, the group argues that "unmediated negotiations," meaning face-to-face talks between the parties, ought to give way to "strong and active American leadership" - inside-the-Beltway talk for imposing a solution on the parties.

That sort of thinking grossly overestimates Washington's ability to fundamentally alter the political values of Palestinian society, which remain unreconciled either to the legitimacy of a Jewish state or our civilizational origins in this region. Under these circumstances, imposing peace on Palestinians and Israelis would leave the former no more ready for coexistence.

To compensate for coercing Israel into concessions no Israeli government would willingly accede to, we can imagine Washington finding it necessary to become a guarantor of Palestinian compliance to an imposed peace. Yet consider the example of Haiti, located 1,000 km. off Florida's coast. Despite military interventions, decades of diplomacy and millions in aid, Washington has been unable to "fix" that tiny, broken polity.

As the US struggles to extricate itself from Iraq and come up with a plan for Afghanistan, J Street is indeed the address for anyone who wants Washington to provide "strong and active American leadership" on the Palestinian-Israeli front.

J STREET says it firmly supports Israel's right to self-defense. Yet it can supply no scenario in which a military response that is "disproportionate" and "escalatory" makes good sense.

But as an October 19 analysis by New York TimesJerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner pointed out, for all Israel's many diplomatic headaches, the IDF's tough approach to West Bank suicide bombers during the second intifada, and to aggression from Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon in 2006, as well as Hamas-controlled Gaza in late 2008, has made the country safer and quieter than ever.

Israeli parents pray for the day when their children can go directly from high school to university without spending years in the army. Still, for friends of Israel who think our security dilemmas mirror those of the Benelux countries, J Street is the right address.

NO ONE owns the patent on what it means to be "pro-Israel." And Diaspora criticism of this country dates back to Nahum Goldmann's disapproval of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir in the 1950s and '60s. In the '70s, the Breira group was founded in Goldmann's image. In the '80s, it was succeeded by the New Jewish Agenda. In time, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum emerged.

What primarily distinguishes J Street from these groups is that it can legally raise money and give it away to candidates who share its idea of pro-Israelism. Thus a politician seeking a House seat who opposes our partial blockade of Gaza, opposes sanctions on Iran, demands an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines, won't insist Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and won't demand they renounce the "right of return" could be eligible for some of the $600,000 in J Street PAC money.

J Street has been criticized for taking contributions from Arab sources. In fact, these monies are a fraction of its known budget. Nevertheless, would it not make more sense for Jewish doves to encourage Arab donors to promote a viable peace movement among the Palestinians?

Maybe, instead of staying away from the J Street event - though we do not criticize him for doing so - Oren could have exploited a golden opportunity to detail the extent of the chasm between J Street and Main Street. He might have challenged the organization to embrace Zionism as its ethos, and reassured those uncomfortable with Israeli policies that "stifling" constructive Diaspora criticism has been passé since the days of Nahum Goldmann.

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