Pity the members of J Street. The left-wing lobby was brought into existence in order to act as a Jewish cheering section for Obama administration pressure on Israel. Its allegedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform is predicated on the notion that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by means of heavy-handed American arm-twisting. It hoped Obama, whose election its members regarded as proof that they, rather than the mainstream AIPAC, represented the bulk of American Jewry, would apply the screws to Israel’s government and magically produce a peace agreement.
But well into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, their hopes have been dashed. Bereft of influence on Capital Hill or even within the administration it relentlessly supports, J Street has found itself on the sidelines continually seeking to fan each flame of U.S.-Israel discord into a fire that will produce the peace process breakthrough it devoutly insists is always just around the corner. Though J Street has not been without its moments of triumph when Obama has gratuitously slammed Israel and its government, disappointment always follows because not even the most hostile administration to the Jewish state since Jimmy Carter has ever been willing to escalate those spats into all-out political war. Thus, despite its approval of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative and of Obama’s disdain for Prime Minister Netanyahu, J Street finds itself out of sync with the administration.
That’s the position J Street finds itself in again today when it urged Obama not to let the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement be an impediment to pursuing pressure on Israel. That put it at odds with an administration which considered the PA’s alliance with the Islamist terror movement both disappointing and troubling. The idea that Obama and Kerry would, as J Street urges, seize this moment to produce their own peace plan and demand Israel accept it is farcical. Instead of being able to use its influence in the Oval Office and the State Department, J Street is marooned with Hamas.
After months of intensive shuttle diplomacy in which Mr. Kerry relentlessly pursued the peace process and even dangled the possibility of releasing an American convicted of spying for Israel to salvage the lifeless talks, his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, called the Palestinian move “disappointing” and the timing “troubling.”
“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” Ms. Psaki said, citing conditions Hamas has repeatedly rejected. “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”
J Street’s argument about Hamas being no impediment to peace (echoed here by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg) is so out of touch with mainstream opinion in Israel and the American Jewish community it claims to represent as to be cringe inducing. They note that peace process cynics have rightly pointed out that so long as the Palestinians were hopelessly split between Fatah and Hamas, with the former running the West Bank and the latter operating an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas had no ability to sign a peace deal even if he wanted to. It claims that critics of the process will now switch to saying that a unified Palestinian government with Hamas will be unable to make a deal and asserts that this illustrates their fundamental opposition to peace.
This is, of course, nonsense. The reason why the Israeli government and the pro-Israel community in the United States reject Fatah-Hamas unity is because the Islamist movement as well as a significant slice of Fatah want no part of peace. As I wrote earlier this month when noting the comparisons between the struggle for peace in Ireland and that in the Middle East, just as Irish leaders were forced to choose between peace with Britain and peace with maximalist extremists, so, too, did Fatah have to make such a choice. But unlike Michael Collins, Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat were never able to muster the courage to wage war on those Palestinians who refused to accept a two-state solution. Whether that division was rooted in their own intransigence or their fear of Hamas, the result is the same.
While there is good reason to doubt that this reconciliation will be implemented, its purpose is not to prepare the ground for a unified push for peace but to allow both Fatah and Hamas to perpetuate the status quo. Abbas never wanted to negotiate with Israel and seized the first pretext he could find to abandon the talks. Neither Fatah nor Hamas can make peace or pursue the development Palestinians badly need, but both understand that they must continue to distract the people who suffer under their joint misrule from this fact.
Even more to the point, J Street’s suggestion that this is the moment for Kerry to put forward his own peace plan shows just how out of touch they are. Kerry may have been foolhardy enough to think the magic of his personality could achieve what all of his predecessors failed to accomplish, but he is not so stupid as to think he could persuade a Palestinian government that included Hamas would accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Nor would Obama risk his limited political capital in a midterm election year on a fight with Israel that would, like his previous squabbles with Netanyahu, do nothing to advance the cause. That’s why J Street, for all of President Obama’s sympathy for its goals, finds itself once again marginalized.