A serious analysis of J Street

December 13, 2013

In Blog

J Street: Israel’s Loyal Opposition

Dec 12 2013 by Jamie Stern-Weiner
Tzipi Livni at the World Economic Conference, 2007. Image by Yoshiko Kusano via Wikimedia Commons.]
Tzipi Livni at the World Economic Conference, 2007. Image by Yoshiko Kusano via Wikimedia Commons.]

J Street’s fourth annual conference, held in September in Washington D.C., was shot through with the triumphalism of a lobby ascendant. Opening the event, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami staked out the rational middle-ground for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, beset, as it always seems to be, by opposed extremes. Against one-state fantasists to his left and Greater Israel fanatics to his right, Ben-Ami reasserted J Street’s vision for a negotiated two-state settlement.

With the air of a General nearing battle’s end, Ben-Ami observed that even the likes of AIPAC and the Republican Party can now be heard endorsing a Palestinian state. But as he also pointed out, there is a big difference between using “the language of two-states” and supporting it in substance. This distinction is important to bear in mind with respect to J Street’s own position.

The J Street solution

The “two-state solution” is short-hand for a set of principles, grounded in international law, for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. These provide for a peace settlement based on an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders; the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem as its capital; and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, based on international law.

With the exception of the United States, Israel, and a handful of their allies, the entire General Assembly of the United Nations annually affirms the two-state solution. The International Court of Justice and all major human rights organizations have confirmed its key premises—the illegality of Israel’s settlements and the status of the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem, as occupied Palestinian territory.

J Street claims to support the two-state solution. In fact, it rejects it in favor of terms of settlement more amenable to Israel.

According to the international consensus, Israeli settlements are all illegal. This notwithstanding, Palestinian negotiators have offered Israel a deal that would permit it to annex approximately two percent of the West Bank so that some sixty percent of the settlers may remain where they are, under Israeli sovereignty. The conflict persists because successive Israeli governments have demanded, contrary to the terms of the international consensus, to annex, not two percent of occupied Palestinian territory, but eight to ten percent; keeping eighty to eighty-five percent of settlers in situ and—crucially—incorporating the major settlement blocs. The effect of this would be to trisect the West Bank and expropriate some of its most valuable resources. Not coincidentally, the route of the West Bank Wall incorporates the settlement blocs and approximately eighty-five percent of the settlers on the “Israeli” side.

J Street’s new million-dollar “2 Campaign” maintains that through land swaps “roughly eighty percent” of settlers can be “incorporated into future Israeli borders.” Our “vision” of a “reasonable settlement,” Ben-Ami has written, would see the “major settlement blocs… remain inside Israel.” (Note that for something to “remain” in Israel, it must currently be in Israel, which the settlements are not.) It bears recalling that the Annapolis negotiations broke down precisely on this issue: whereas Palestinian negotiators were willing to compromise on individual settlements, they refused to accept Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs.

Although J Street does not associate itself with any specific map for resolving the conflict, its campaign appears to draw on land swap “scenarios” put together by David Makovsky, all of which envisage Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs. Makovsky, formerly a senior fellow at the AIPAC-associated Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), was recently appointed senior advisor on the peace process by Secretary of State John Kerry. “He’s the expert on how to do land swaps,” J Street enthused, and we “hope that the administration is going to be calling on that expertise.”

In short, although coy about explicitly saying so, J Street endorses Israel’s annexation of critical chunks of the West Bank, rejecting the international consensus two-state settlement and demanding from Palestinians even greater compromises on their legal rights.

Still more pernicious than its positive proposals for a final settlement, is the strategy J Street promotes for realizing them. Rather than cooperating with Palestinians and solidarity activists to increase the cost to Israel of continued occupation, J Street works assiduously to ease its burden.

Sidelining international law

The United States and Israel fully recognize that their preferred terms of settlement contradict the international consensus. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak observed, “on the matter of borders, the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us.” Successive US and Israeli governments have therefore rejected international law as the basis for negotiations. When Palestinian negotiators in 2000 at Camp David insisted that Israel accept the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 border as a baseline for talks, President Bill Clinton was furious. “This isn’t the Security Council here,” he raged. “This isn’t the UN General Assembly… I’m the president of the United States.” “I am a lawyer,” then-Israeli Foreign Minister and J Street 2013’s keynote speaker Tzipi Livni told Palestinian negotiators in 2007, “but I am against law—international law in particular.”

Livni, it bears recalling, was also Foreign Minister during the 2008-09 Gaza massacre, in which Israeli forces killed over 1400 people in a campaign designed, an authoritative UN inquiry concluded, to “punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism” in Gaza, Livni boasted, “which I demanded.” These comments did not unduly trouble Jeremy Ben-Ami, who “applaud[ed]” the UK government’s dismissal of an arrest warrant for Livni, and its pledge to amend British law to prevent future efforts to secure legal accountability. In her speech to J Street, Livni urged attendees to “be united behind” the Israeli army and defended both the Gaza massacre and Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon (in which it, inter alia, saturated the south of the country with up to four million cluster munitions in the final hours of the conflict when a ceasefire had already been agreed; this was carried out under then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was the guest of honor at last year’s J Street conference). Livni is the kind of “strong leader,” gushed Ben-Ami in his introduction, we “desperately need.” Upon Livni’s resignation from the Knesset in May 2012, J Street issued a statement praising her “principled… support for a two-state solution;” Livni has publicly characterized the route of the Wall as “the future border of the state of Israel.”

Like the United States and Israel, J Street has little time for international law. Its website scarcely mentions it; its position papers on settlements and Jerusalem make no reference to issues of legality; and a Google search indicates that neither J Street nor Jeremy Ben-Ami has ever mentioned the International Court of Justice’s seminal July 2004 advisory opinion, which affirmed the legal basis of the two-state solution. Indeed, dismissing the decades-old international consensus identifying the pre-June 1967 line as Israel’s legal boundary, which the International Court of Justice affirmed, Ben-Ami maintains that Israel “is still without internationally accepted borders.”

It is no mere slip that J Street, outlining its position on land swaps, calls for “agreed” adjustments to the pre-1967 borders. To call for agreed upon rather than legal borders is to grant Israel a veto, and to join Israel and the United States in rejecting international law as the basis for a settlement. Ben-Ami is surely aware of this. His book recounts the savaging of Howard Dean’s campaign for president, on which Ben-Ami worked, after Dean had the temerity to deviate from the script on Israel. The attack was led by then-Senator John Kerry—now hailed by J Street as savior of the Levant. The Dean incident demonstrated, Ben-Ami writes, that anyone desiring a career in American politics has to follow the “rules of the game” when it comes to Israel: “The lines you need to know are simple. Memorize them and you’ll be fine. Questioned on Hamas? They’re terrorists. Questioned about settlements? That’s an issue for the parties to negotiate.” As Ben-Ami relates it, he established J Street in order “to rewrite those rules.” Apparently he lost his pen.

Promoting American leadership

Since the 1990s, the United States and Israel have used the Middle East peace process to delay and pre-empt efforts to impose the international consensus for resolving the conflict on Israel. Indeed this has been the peace process’s primary function, which explains the apparent paradox of the past few years, whereby an Israeli government that rejects the two-state settlement has pushed for negotiations against the resistance of a Palestinian leadership that accepts it. J Street concedes that the peace process has to date yielded no progress towards a negotiated settlement, but maintains that the solution lies in renewed talks involving a “bolder,” more assertive American mediator.

J Street has never made clear why those seeking a just settlement ought to look to the United States, Israel’s patron, to oversee negotiations. “[It is] against the law of nations,” a Genevan official explained in December 1780, rejecting French mediation between rival factions in the city state, “for two opposed parties to bring in a third party as mediator, who secretly favored one of them.” “Tell Secretary Kerry,” J Street now urges supporters, “I firmly support bold American leadership to reach a two-state agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

At times Ben-Ami has hinted that this “bold leadership” may involve applying material pressure on Israel, which might otherwise exploit a diplomatic process “that demands nothing of substance and is perpetually focused on the date of the next meeting” to prolong the status quo. Yet J Street has consistently refused to call on the United States to do this and Ben-Ami has, when pressed, dismissed the idea out of hand.

Easing Israel’s burden

Indeed, J Street has opposed all efforts to raise the cost of occupation for Israel. After a UN inquiry found evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza in 2008-09, J Street called on the US government to veto moves in the Security Council to refer Israel or Israelis to the International Criminal Court. Ben-Ami publicly opposes boycotts of Israeli goods, even if targeted exclusively at the settlements and aimed specifically at ending the occupation. In addition, J Street pro-actively lobbies student, church and other organizations to refrain from adopting even “limited divestment.” J Street and its student branch express “dismay” at efforts by Palestinian solidarity activists to highlight Israel’s apartheid-like policies in the occupied territories, and opposed activists sailing a flotilla through Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza on the grounds that it risked distracting from “important diplomatic work.” When the Palestinian leadership sought admission to the UN in 2011, J Street backed a US veto, calling instead for “US-led… negotiations.”

J Street does not merely work against efforts to render Israel’s occupation less profitable. It “unconditionally supports and lobbies for robust US assistance to Israel,”  “urg[ing],” for instance, Congress to pass the Iron Dome Act and “applaud[ing]” steps by the Obama administration to “enhance U.S.-Israel security cooperation.” J Street celebrated Israel’s acceptance into the OECD in 2010, over the concerns of human rights groups.

J Street has, in short, channeled principled activism into the promotion of bilateral negotiations between an occupying power and the civilian population it occupies, “mediated” by the closest ally of the former and rejecting international law as the framework for discussion. Advancing this “vision,” it lobbies for increased US aid to Israel and uses its resources to undermine efforts by activists and Palestinian officials alike to raise the material cost of Israel’s occupation. September’s conference, observers of American Jewish politics reported, marked J Street’s entrance to the American Jewish and Israeli establishments. Little wonder.

Thanks to Jeremy Ben-Ami and Norman Finkelstein for their comments on an earlier version of this article.