The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, threw the left-wing lobby J Street a few bones in an interview last week. JTA quotes Oren as telling a California Jewish newspaper that the “J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving. The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”
By refusing to appear at J Street’s conference last fall and saying that its views on Israel were “dangerous,” Oren demonstrated Israel’s impatience with a lobby whose agenda was solely focused on instigating pressure on Israel from the Obama administration while foiling pressure on Iran. It’s understandable that Oren would attempt to reward some moderation in their stands. His priority is to aid the assembly of the largest possible coalition of support for Israel, not to punish those whose efforts are, at best, less than helpful. However, to the extent that J Street is trying to behave like a mainstream organization — an assumption that is certainly open to debate — this change reflects two important factors.
First is the complete irrelevance of J Street’s main idea: that there is a need for a Jewish lobby whose purpose is to push Washington to push Israel to make peace. As the events of the last year continue to prove, the obstacle to peace remains the Palestinians and their political culture of violence and hatred for Israel. As much as the Jewish Left has gained in the United States during the Obama presidency, the Left in Israel is as close to dead as it can be. That’s because the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that after Oslo’s false promises, Arafat’s refusal of a state in the West Bank and Jerusalem in 2000 and 2001, and Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal of an even more generous offer in 2008, the Palestinian nationalist movement Fatah has proved it is not interested in a state as long as that state must live in peace alongside Israel. That the even more extreme Hamas terrorist movement controls Gaza and might expand someday into the West Bank if Israel abandons its security presence there has rendered the idea of further concessions and withdrawals absurd. This is a political reality that no amount of pressure from either Obama or the American Left can alter.
But just as the Obama administration may be backing off its initial desire to push Israel into a corner, its Jewish cheering section at J Street may be starting to see that its initial extreme positions, such as opposing Israel’s counteroffensive into Gaza last year (an operation that had wall-to-wall political support in Israel), were a disaster. For all the controversy in the American Jewish community about whether J Street is “pro” or “anti” Israel, the bottom line is that J Street’s platform is simply irrelevant to the situation that Israel actually faces.
But J Street’s real purpose was never so much about influencing the peace process as it was a reflection of the desire on the part of the American Jewish Left to challenge mainstream groups for influence here, not at the peace table in the Middle East. J Street’s agenda is about American politics, not peace. But though most American Jews remain loyal liberal Democrats, the idea that a new group was needed to push for more Israeli concessions after all that has happened in the past two decades is ludicrous. The issue for American friends of Israel today is whether they are prepared to speak up for the existence of the Jewish state and its right of self-defense, not the stale old Left-Right arguments that have been rehearsed again and again in the past quarter century. If J Street wants to be anything more than the Jewish rump of Moveon.org, it must do things like support sanctions on Iran and back Israel’s right to self-defense. These are positions that undermine the entire reason for the group’s founding. But whether they can stay on this path — and I doubt it — this pat on the head from Israel’s ambassador reflects the fact that it has failed to muster support for an extreme agenda that it must either downplay or abandon.