The left-wing lobby J Street didn’t turn out to be the Washington colossus its backers hoped it would be when Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009. Despite having a president who was clearly sympathetic to their point of view, the group has never been able to successfully challenge AIPAC in the contest to see which of them would speak for the pro-Israel community. Nor has it amassed much influence on Capitol Hill and it has often been marginalized by the White House, especially during the 2012 presidential election. But J Street did score a major public-relations victory this spring when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to exclude it from their ranks. While the vote exposed the resentment much of the organized Jewish world bears for a group that has, from its inception, sought to undercut other groups, it also allowed J Street to play the victim and made it easier for it to say that the mainstream Jewish groups are unrepresentative.
But when J Street convened its annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend, there seemed to be little evidence that it had either amassed the influence it once thought it might have or that its views favoring U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace were gaining traction. Instead, the group was forced to answer questions as to why anyone should take seriously a group whose views were so obviously out-of-touch with the reality of a Middle East peace process that had broken down again. While J Street may claim that if its positions were adopted, Israel might have been able to finally make peace, that position is given the lie by the Fatah-Hamas unity pact that effectively precludes the Palestinian Authority from ever making peace with Israel. But the real proof of just how clueless J Street is about Israel’s supposed peace partners came from the speakers list at their conference. One of the keynote speakers on the first evening of their conclave was former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who expressed pessimism about peace but urged J Street to persist in its efforts to pressure Israel.
While Fayyad is a Palestinian who is generally admired by mainstream Israelis as well as Americans who are knowledgeable about the Middle East, his presence at the J Street event is telling. While J Street is right to think that Fayyad would be a real partner for peace if he were still in office, his availability to fly to San Francisco tells us something about how representative his opinions actually are. His brand of pragmatism and opposition to both the violence of Hamas and the kleptocracy of Fatah marks him as a man without political constituency among a Palestinian population that prefers both of those two terror groups/political parties to “Fayyadism.” If J Street is to hang its hat on the notion that this person’s ideas are a guarantee that peace is possible, no wonder few in Israel or anywhere else take them seriously.
J Street’s positions on the issues that were reiterated at their conference by its leader Jeremy Ben-Ami are a confusing blend of naïveté, leftism, and Zionism. Being “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” can be a problem in a left-wing milieu where openly anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voices for Peace are stealing J Street’s thunder. To his credit, Ben-Ami continues to insist that support for BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) campaigns against Israel are something his group can never support. J Street walks a fine line that is not as attractive to its core constituency of radicals who are more comfortable with BDS than they are with Ben-Ami’s brand of left-wing Zionism.
To compensate for that, the group emphasizes the key points that helped bring it to life as a cheering squad for the Obama administration against the mainstream pro-Israel community. Thus, J Street is not only highlighting its support for continued efforts to revive the peace talks via pressure on Israel and backing the administration’s decision to embrace the Fatah-Hamas unity government. In addition to that it is also seeking to build support for any nuclear deal that Obama might cut with Iran and to oppose congressional efforts to force the administration to keep its word to avert the nuclear threat.
Ben-Ami’s pretense is that this makes J Street a moderate force rather than a Jewish rump of so-called progressive groups like the leftist Moveon.org. But that pose of moderation is just as absurd as clinging to the notion that Fayyad represents Palestinian opinion. As one of the other speakers at the J Street event noted, the Israeli public has repeatedly rejected leftists who agree with the American group and is likely to swing even further to the right in the future. The reason for this is that, unlike liberal American Jews, Israelis have been paying attention to the repeated PA rejections of peace offers and the fact that Fayyad is a man without a party or supporters among the Palestinian people. It’s not that most Israelis don’t want a two-state solution. They do want it. It’s just that they have come to accept the fact that the Palestinians don’t want one.
More than their disgraceful position on Iran or their slavish applause for Obama’s betrayal of Israel on Hamas, the presence of Fayyad at the J Street event shows that they are not only wrong on the issues, they are also irrelevant to any serious discussion about the Middle East.