J Street chief: Obama needs to connect with the Israeli people
Ben-Ami: Obama must make the case for why certain compromises are so vital for everybody in the region.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street executive director, is bringing to Israel on Sunday a large J Street delegation, to meet with President Peres and members of Knesset, among others.
So the big rift between you and the Israeli government is over?
"I think we've seen a real gradual improvement in our relationship over the last six months. And it continues to improve. I hope it will only continue to be the case.
During your recent meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, did you reach some gentlemen's agreement?
"There was a sharing of our views, but there was no specific requests made and no changes in anybody's attitudes. J Street disagrees with some of the policies of the Israeli government and it will continue to have these disagreements and express them. But all in the context of a very deep love and support for the State of Israel. Among the list of supporters listed on J Street's Web site are people like the Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon, Nobel laureates, former congressmen and senators, professors, rabbis, businessmen and leaders of the left-wing organizations."
The delegation, says Ben-Ami, includes Israeli-American businessman Davidi Gilo, Alan Wurtzel of J Street's finance committee and Alexandra Stanton from New York (former Chief of Staff, Empire State Development Corporation).
"There are people from both coasts and the middle of the country. We have a couple of non-Jewish supporters coming - a very good mix of people in the group."
Your critics love to portray you as a "Soros and Arab money" organization. Do you see it as a problem? Do you have a problem with non-Jewish donations?
"We have no problem with that. I don't think other pro-Israeli organizations have a problem with non-Jewish supporters either. I think our goal is to build a base for support for Israel. So we are very happy to be working with those who aren't Jewish and have some of them involved in our leadership, so that's a very good thing. We have actually no Arab Americans coming with us on this particular trip, but we'll love for them in the future to join us. We would welcome them. It's our goal in fact to show that there are Arab Americans who support the security and existence of the State of Israel, and we support the creation of the State of Palestine. That's part of our goal to show that there is a moderate middle in both communities."
What are your plans for this visit?
"This is our very first trip with people who are in our leadership. There are some members on our board of directors, some people on our finance committee and other who are thinking about becoming more active, so it's about 30 people who are very significantly supportive and interested - and for them, it's a chance to see on the ground what is happening and to better understand a situation and get a full range of opinions. We are going to meet with everybody from settler organizations to human rights organizations. We are meeting with Israelis as well as Palestinians, we are meeting with President Peres, with Prime Minister Fayyad, with King Abdullah. In the Knesset we'll be meeting with many different parties - I believe that we have a meeting that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud, Kadima and Labor - all in one panel discussion. The idea is to have these different views to help inform our leadership as we set a course for J Street here in the States. One of the issues for J Street in this country is that people don't understand how wide a range the views are in Israel, and a wide range of disagreements. And we are trying to expose our leadership to how comfortable they should be expressing their opinions."
You celebrated two years last week. How would you summarize the success up to date? When you started this initiative, was it what you expected?
"It was just as controversial and difficult as I would have thought at the beginning. But I think that our success and impact was greater than I imagined. I think that we are very clearly both on the map here in Washington, and having an impact. And to be able to do it in only two years - it's beyond our expectations. I think there are a very few members of the Congress, very few people involved in Israel policy work, that don't know who we are and don't know what we are doing, and who don't acknowledge that we've increased political space on this issue in just two years."
"The most concrete evidence is really in Congress, where dozens of members of Congress are finding a way to express themselves when it comes to the Middle east that is very comfortable for them, that is pro-Israel and also calling for U.S. leadership in resolving this conflict. I think many members of Congress felt they couldn't talk about it before. And I think we've created a lot of room for them and they are sensing a breath of fresh air in sense of what the Jewish community is telling them constitutes of being pro-Israel."
But still there was a congressman who asked to return the money, and some are heading toward tough elections in November. Are they still wary to take money from J street?
"We have a long way to go. The mountain we are climbing is tall and steep. And we've taken some good steps in the beginning of the journey, but we are not near the top. Absolutely we have a lot of work to do, there are a lot of members of Congress who still don't feel the freedom to speak and who don't think it's safe yet. And we will be continuing to work and hopefully make this space a little bit wider and give them a little more freedom to talk and express their opinions."
There were some claims that on some positions you were flip-flopping, some left-wingers said you weren't persistently left on some cases. As if you were checking the boundaries trying to generate some consistent agenda.
"Well, our consistency is that we are nuanced, that we are finding a middle ground between those who run on the extreme on the left and right, and we do get criticized from both sides. Those who thought we are far-reaching left-wing are perhaps now disappointed, and those who are taking us as too conservative are figuring out what we really are. We represent what I call 'passionate moderates.' People who have a very mainstream, rational view. We do support Israel - we don't want a one-state solution, we don't want Israel to lose its Jewish character, and we also want it to compromise and survive and give the territory necessary to create a Palestinian state. These are nuanced positions and some people like some simple reflective answers that go to one side or another, but we've never provided those."
So technically, how do you generate your positions?
"Ultimately we have a board of directors. They are very involved. The broad policy of the organization is set by the board of directors. We do get a lot of input from what we call 'J Street locals' all over the country. We do have an advisory group that represents this grassroots, we have a student board from the J Street youth program, our staff is very involved, we have a national advisory council of well-known experts, and all these pieces of the puzzle have an input, but the final decision-making rests with the board. And that's where policy is set."
Apparently you are more open toward AIPAC than vice versa. Did you have any open conversations with them?
"I can't speak for them. We express deep respect for AIPAC and what they've accomplished. It's hard not to be impressed over what they have done over many decades to establish such a deep US-Israel relationship. But we do have our disagreements when it comes to some aspects of policy. I would love this discussion to be open and civil - and public. I'd love to appear with them and discuss our different approaches, that would be our choice - to have this vibrant and open conversation for the Jewish community in this country to hear and to participate in."
In these two years, did you make any mistakes?
"Nobody doesn't make mistakes. I would say that any time we've appeared to engage in politics in Israel, that's been a mistake. Any time we've said that we would savor one party over another, we were closer to this person or that person in Israeli politics, that's a mistake and we shouldn't be involved at all in Israeli politics. It's none of our business. We are about America and what American Jews do politically. We may have crossed that line. And probably being involved in a couple of public discussions or disputes with other organizations that maybe didn't need to be held in that way. So there were definitely moments of mistakes, but the overall direction and the message that we've put out of who we are and what we represent - I am very proud of."
This week there has been a lot of action: Senator Mitchell is back in the region, Netanyahu refused to freeze settlements building, but it seems that the U.S. is ready to go ahead in order to start something.
"Our view is that the most important thing that must happen is that the president, together with our other international allies, have to provide the map for the parties to get themselves out of the current stalemate. It involves some bridging proposals, some active ideas. There needs to be some sense of the timeline, there needs to be some sense of accountability - for instance, when the Palestinians are not coming to the table, they should be publicly held accountable, and if the Israelis are taking actions that are not helpful they should be held accountable. And that's more of an assertive role than has been played so far, and we are going to continue to urge the administration to do this because time is of the essence."
So should President Obama go to Jerusalem?
"The president should definitely go to Israel at the right moment. I don't know if this is the right moment, but he needs to connect with the Israeli people, he needs to assure them of his deep support for their security and their future, and he needs to make the case for why the compromises that must be made are so vital for everybody in the region, whether it's the American interests, the Israeli interests or the interests of the Palestinians or the people in the region."