Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel

Named for a nonexistent road on the Washington, D.C., grid that would presumably lie adjacent to K Street (the natural habitat for lobbying firms in our nation’s capital), J Street is a four-year-old lobby that provides what it feels is a missing link in the pro-Israel political establishment. In fact, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, former deputy domestic policy director for Bill Clinton, believes that being pro-Israel sometimes means disagreeing with Israeli policy.

Ben-Ami, who advocates for a two-state solution and takes congressmembers — including Santa Barbara’s own Lois Capps — on tours of Israel, including the occupied Palestinian territory, will speak in a free public forum next Tuesday, November 13, at the Lobero Theatre (after a not-so-free fundraising dinner). He will talk about what he believes the newly reelected president can do to expedite a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Respondents from the Santa Barbara faith community will participate.

In a conversation with The Santa Barbara Independent, Ben-Ami shared his analysis of the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations, offering approbation for Obama’s handling of Iran, lamenting the difficulty of open debate about Israel policy within the Jewish community, and defending Lois Capps, who has taken flak from the right for being unfriendly to Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami

There seems to be a disconnect between the rhetoric on Israel that you hear from national politicians and the attitudes of the average Jewish citizen. The fundamental premise of J Street is that the established organizations and leaders of the American Jewish community have gotten out of step with the opinions of the broader Jewish-American public. There was no national voice representing a broad swath of American Jewry that does love Israel, that really does care about it, and feels connected to it and wants it to be secure and safe.

I have heard rumors of rabbis reticent about engaging with J Street because they are worried about offending their congregations. Not only the leaders but the institutions themselves. This doesn’t have anything to do with Santa Barbara, but I can just give you this example that’s happening right now in Atlanta where the Jewish Community Center (JCC) was going to have a book talk as part of its book festival next week by Peter Beinart called The Crisis of Zionism. The JCC pulled the plug. This happens frequently around the country. Established organizations are in the end blackmailed or coerced into limiting the freedom of discussion because a handful of donors or activists essentially raise too big a fuss. So everybody gets intimidated, and they think that they can’t speak or they can’t have speakers. And it shuts down debate; it shuts down discussion. It has a really chilling effect on open debate about a very, very difficult issue. Everything to do with Israel is complicated, it’s sensitive, and there are no easy answers. In a situation like that, the most important thing is to have the broadest and most vibrant possible debate because you want people to hear all aspects of the questions.

Do you see a generation gap when it comes to the feelings of American Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? We are seeing within J Street that one of the most vibrant and exciting aspects of our work is called J Street U, which is our college campus program. College campuses are extremely polarized when it comes to Israel. You have a vibrant pro-Palestinian movement on the political left, and then you have the Jewish community that traditionally responds in a defensive manner to any criticism and sort of takes an Israel right-or-wrong position. Then you have the vast majority of Jewish young Americans who really fall in the middle. They don’t think it’s appropriate to support anything without questioning. They also don’t think the entirety of the blame should lie with Israel. … College campuses are great for us because we want a more nuanced discussion.

How do you feel about President Obama’s handling of Iran, whose own president has called for the destruction of Israel? We’ve been very supportive of a tough approach to Iran. We are very concerned not just as friends of Israel but as Americans. One should be concerned about the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. It’s something that not just the U.S. and Israel but the entire world is united in trying to prevent. … The approach that we support is one that starts with diplomacy and aims for a negotiated agreement to get Iran to stop with the weapons program and to agree to international inspections and to combine diplomacy with really tough sanctions, which the president proposed and got the UN and the world to support. And they are having an impact. It’s very hard for those that are beating the drums of war and are the most hawkish to say the sanctions aren’t working. You just look at the Iranian economy, and exports of oil, and the currency — the sanctions are definitely taking a toll. The question now is, can the United States and their allies put forward a real diplomatic offer that is going to persuade the Iranians to get out of this corner they’re in? We’re very supportive of the way the president has approached this. It’s been smart, it’s been tough, and he’s kept his hand out continuing to offer a way out for the Iranians.

There is no question that [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is one of the most dangerous leaders in terms of his rhetoric and world view that we’ve seen in a long time. For those who are really Iranian experts and analysts who study how Iran works, the real power in Iran rests with the ayatollahs — not with Ahmadinejad but with [Ali] Khamenei. The debate that often is underneath the surface is whether or not to consider Iran at the end of the day as a “rational actor.” We at J Street have taken sides on that and do believe at the end of the day the Iranian government and this regime — even though it is offensive and the things that it says are offensive and what is stands for is offensive — is one that at the end of the day you can strike a deal with.

Congressmember Lois Capps, who represents Santa Barbara, has taken flak from the right for being unfriendly to Israel. What’s your take? She is, in our view, a pro-Israel champion. I personally spent a week in Israel with Congresswoman Capps about three years ago. I can attest firsthand to her deep concern about Israel’s security and its future and equal concern about the problems and the challenges facing the Palestinian people. She understands better than any member of Congress the urgency of achieving a two-state solution to the conflict and how important that is to Israel’s future, the Palestinian people, and the Middle East as a whole. J Street rates her as one of the pro-Israel champions in Congress. We’ve been very proud to endorse her. We’ve raised $90,911.13 for her.

Mitt Romney had boasted a personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We were encouraged that Romney spoke about a two-state solution in the debate. We believe very significant Republican policy advisers are where J Street is at. If Romney were to have won, we’d have looked forward to working with the White House and with the Republican foreign policy leadership. … We don’t see it as a partisan agenda. We see it as an American foreign policy interest.

When politicians, especially on the right, seem to be talking to the Jewish population, they are probably appealing to evangelical Christians. Despite outspoken Republican support for Israel, Jews still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The evangelical constituency — and within that, the Christian Zionist wing — is a very important part of the Republican party base. Within their primary process, it’s an important audience. In the Republican primaries this past year, people like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were tripping over each other to get as far right on this issue as possible, and within the Republican party, we’ve seen what we call the one-state caucus, which is a group of 45 members of the House who endorsed a resolution in Congress that said Israel should annex the West Bank. They even used the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. The notion that Israel would annex this land and give up on the independent Palestinian state is really what we would call the death knell for a Jewish and democratic Israel. You are soon going to have a majority of non-Jews in that land. So how can you have a Jewish homeland and a democracy if you have a minority of Jews and a majority of non-Jews in that geographic area? That’s that base constituency of the Republican party in the primaries and in some of the reddest of the red states. I think that drives some of the hard-right politics on this issue, and you see this in so many issues where Mitt Romney had to go to the far right, calling himself “severely conservative,” and now suddenly he’s the moderate bipartisan who can work across party lines. So that dynamic isn’t just an Israel dynamic in the far reaches of the right of American politics. It’s on a whole host of issues — the environment, women’s issues, and all sorts of stuff.

Many of Israel’s top politicians fought for the state’s sovereignty and therefore may have a harder stance toward Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors in general. Is it time for a new generation of leaders? I just flew back [from Israel]. I landed this morning from a week in Israel. They are heading toward their own elections in January, and one of the issues in Israeli politics is that there isn’t a clear alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu for the opposition. There just isn’t somebody else who the Israeli public can imagine as prime minister. You look at Ehud Olmert, [Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak — they’re all over 60, and there is a generation of them that has been around or at the center of Israeli politics for the last 20 years. There isn’t a clear group of people who are 45 to 55 who are ready to take their place. What is very interesting is that, in the current cycle, there is a group of people who are about 35 to 40 who are all getting into politics for the first time — a lot of new faces — particularly in the Labor Party but even on the right. It’s almost like with politics in Israel fairly soon — not in this election — there is going to be a transition to the next generation.

There is an element of truth [to the hawkishness of the current generation], but take Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak, all of them other than Bibi Netanyahu. They have all come a long way from their hawkish right-wing backgrounds. Just like Ariel Sharon, they realized the dream that Israelis might have had of a greater Israel and controlling all the land — those dreams are not possible. If it’s going to be democratic and Jewish, they’re going to have to compromise on the land. And a lot of folks have come to that realization. Bibi Netanyahu has said in words that he has; we haven’t seen it in action. But the rest of that generation, I do not think they are rabid hawks. They are all realists, and they are nationalistic and tough and proud, but they are all realistic, and they realize the importance of compromise. And that’s where J Street comes in. If Israel is going to survive, if it’s going to hang onto its character as a democracy and be a Jewish nation we can be proud of, it’s going to have to compromise. That’s what they realize and what J Street stands for. So I don’t think they are all bellicose hawks. I just think some of them are slower to come around.

How much time do you spend in the occupied territory? We lead trips. We take our own leadership; we take students. We try to show them a balanced view of the entirety of the conflict. We show them the great things about Israel. It’s an exciting, vibrant country. It’s an absolutely terrific place to visit and to see. We also show them the devastating impacts of the conflict on the West Bank and on Palestinians. We try to show them both sides. I spend a lot of time talking to Palestinians and settlers, and seeing the conflict firsthand.

What is the state of the West Bank today? The settlements have grown enormously over the last 10 years. The numbers are closing in on 350,000 settlers in the West Bank. Probably 100,000 to 150,000 in the last decade. The settlements are deepening, but at the same time, there’s been a lot of strong economic development in the Palestinian sector. The economy there grew at 9 percent on average in 2008, 2009, and 2010. It grew 6 percent last year. … At the same time, the wall is new in the last 10 years. That simply wasn’t there a decade ago. It has its good sides; it’s prevented terror and violence from the West Bank over the last few years, but at the same time, it’s been a tremendous disruption to Palestinian life. In some cases, it’s taken people’s lands. It has taken them from their jobs and their schools.


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