J Street, long assaulted by the right, is suddenly under attack from the left. Ever since its staunch—and perhaps decisive—opposition to a divestment initiative under consideration by the Presbyterian Church, some of J Street’s ideological allies have been slamming it for being on the wrong side of the anti-occupation struggle.
I don’t think that’s fair. J Street is an organization with a clear vision of what it wants to happen in Israel and a clear methodology for how to achieve it. Backing the Presbyterian divestment effort would have undermined both.
J Street—like Americans for Peace Now, which also opposed the Presbyterian initiative—supports the kind of two state solution that Bill Clinton proposed in December 2000: a Palestinian state in 95 percent plus of the West Bank (with some additional land from inside pre-1967 Israel), an international force in the Jordan Valley, a Palestinian capital in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, compensation for Palestinian refugees (and public recognition of their suffering) but no mass refugee return. This distinguishes J Street from the much of the American Jewish establishment, which supports a two state solution in theory but deferred to Benjamin Netanyahu when he rejected Obama’s efforts to reassert the Clinton parameters in May of last year. But it also distinguishes J Street from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, many of whose leaders explicitly support one secular binational state and which officially demands a Palestinian right of return.
Had J Street joined forces with the BDS movement during the Presbyterian fight—and supported a boycott of companies like Motorola and Hewlett-Packard that work not only in the West Bank but extensively within the green line–it would have raised questions about whether the two state solution remains J Street’s true goal. (As I’ve written, I believe a boycott of settlement products alone, if paired with an active affirmation of the products and services of democratic Israel, avoids this ambiguity). If folks on the left want to critique J Street for being wedded to a two-state paradigm they consider unattainable (or even immoral), that’s a different argument. But it’s understandable that J Street would want to link its ends and its means.
Secondly, J Street is a Washington-focused organization. Its key constituency is the Democrats in Congress. In that way, it resembles other progressive institutions—Daily Kos, Center for American Progress—born during the Bush years. The progressive groups born in the 2000s are generally more committed to working inside the Democratic Party, and more accepting of the ideological compromises that that requires, than progressive groups created earlier, perhaps because the Democratic Party is more uniformly liberal than it was in the 1970s or 1980s.
J Street’s strategy is clear: help shift the center of gravity among congressional Democrats so a President has the freedom to put the pressure on Israel (and the Palestinians) necessary to bring a two-state solution to pass. It’s basically the reverse of AIPAC’s strategy: which is to use its influence in Congress to prevent a president from pressuring Israel.
As part of that strategy, J Street endorses (mostly) Democratic candidates, raises money for them, and then tries to influence their behavior in Congress once they win. If J Street is so politically controversial that either 1) Democrats won’t take their endorsement or 2) taking it makes it hard for them to win, then its strategy can’t work. There’s evidence that after some initial reluctance, more prominent Democrats are taking J Street’s endorsement and money. Backing the Presbyterian divestment bid would have made J Street appear more radical, and thus imperiled the progress it is making with notoriously timid congressional Democrats.
To argue that J Street should have backed the Presbyterian divestment effort, therefore, is essentially to say that J Street should abandon its Inside the Beltway strategy in favor of a grassroots activist campaign aimed at influencing not Washington, but the corporate world. It’s not an absurd suggestion. Barack Obama has tried to pressure the Netanyahu government before, first during the settlement freeze fight in 2009 and then during the 1967 lines plus swaps speech in 2011, and in both cases, congressional Democrats did not give Obama the cover he needed, J Street’s efforts notwithstanding. And if Obama gets elected (itself a big “if”), there’s no guarantee he’ll even give J Street a chance to show that things in Congress have changed. As I’ve written before, my suspicion is that absent significant change on the ground, a second term Obama administration may deem the chances of successful American intervention in the peace process too low and refocus its energies on Asia.
Still, it’s hard to ask J Street to abandon its strategy right now. The organization is still very new and it’s feverishly trying to raise the money that would give it influence over both Obama’s second term foreign policy agenda and the congressional Democrats who would need to support it. With people like Susan Rice and John Kerry mooted as potential candidates for National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, and Daniel Kurtzer a potential Middle East envoy, it’s at least possible that Obama could preside over a foreign policy team bolder than the Tom Donilon/Hillary Clinton/Dennis Ross triad that steered Israel policy for much of the first term.
The spat between J Street and its left-wing critics over Presbyterian divestment is really a proxy for a deeper conflict over whether an American-led peace process—and even a Clinton parameters-style two-state solution—is still possible. Given the beliefs and talents of the man in the White House, I don’t blame J Street for taking another hard run at both. But those of us who believe in such things are running out of time.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.