The Israeli Who Wants to Be the First Ambassador to Palestine

Yael Patir, Israel director of J Street, sat down with Haaretz to talk about Trump, the gap between U.S. and Israeli Jews, and the growing anger at the Israeli peace camp. Though she concedes boycott efforts by some on the left have a negative effect, she rejects calls to keep peace efforts local.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
J Street Israel director Yael Patir
J Street Israel director Yael Patir.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman

Yael Patir, 35, J Street Israel director for the past four years. Married to Boaz Rakocz, mother of Michael, dreams of being Israel’s ambassador to Palestine.

Yael Patir, how did you get to J Street?

Ron Pundak at the 10th anniversary of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. March 27, 2014.Credit: Nir Keidar

“They got to me. I was working at the Peres Center for Peace as assistant to the director general, the late Ron Pundak. I was managing a department that dealt with connections between Israeli civil society and Palestinian civil society. That exposed me to the conduct of both communities as well as the international community and to work with broad groups of the population.”

Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

It seems that since the Peres Center for Peace was founded there has been little progress towards peace.

"This is true and very unfortunate, but it's not because of the Peres center or because of peace organizations swimming against the current. Maybe, if anything, they are the reason the situation is not worse. Joint Israeli-Palestinian projects from the past two decades help build mutual trust, and that has an important influence, even if it's under the radar."

It’s hard to see that this peace industry of conferences, flights and hotels in Europe is getting anywhere. Can’t you do something more effective with the money and the dedicated people?

“I share some of the criticism. This is action I call hummus and hugs: meeting in a hotel abroad, getting to know each other for a few days, then go back home and reality penetrates, and the feeling is that maybe what we did there won’t necessarily hold. The way to deal with this is to do everything professionally. Veteran groups with experience know how to do it.”

"Boycott Israel" graffiti is seen in a Palestinian neighborhood in the West Bank city of Hebron on April 26, 2016.Credit: Hazem Bader/AFP

A lot of people feel that what was once the peace industry, with all the criticism of it, has in recent years become an anti-Israel machine that supports boycott, divestment and sanctions.

“It’s true that there is a conscious effort of people on the Israeli left to turn [efforts] outward. They encourage boycott practices against Israel. I don’t support this, and we have to remember that not the whole peace movement and certainly not the whole Israeli left are part of this. What’s more significant is that there is a well-organized and well-funded campaign to delegitimize the left.”

Maybe this campaign is succeeding because the left has gone too far, as far as boycott?

“That’s a position that exists in a democratic society, which allows for freedom of expression. It doesn’t justify sullying the name of the peace camp.”

Yes, but it apparently keeps the left’s positions from reaching the wider public in Israel.

“No doubt the peace camp failed, and many of the flags it’s trying to raise are not flying here.”

J Street Israel director Yael Patir Credit: Eyal Toueg

Why do you think that is?

“Where to start? First of all is the inability to create an Israeli vision that combines security – personal, economic, social and employment – and Jewish Zionist values. Second, when you’re attacked you have to know how to defend yourself, when they take your flag you shouldn’t give up.”

It’s the right of the right-wing groups to hold an anti-leftist campaign.

“Absolutely, but we should have fought it. Not say, ‘oh no, let’s ask the world to save us because we can’t persuade the public.’”

And into this comes the effective campaign over the funding of leftist groups by foreign governments.

“That’s a brilliant campaign. It’s a perfect example of marking the target and creating a battle that has a number of arms – legislation, a public campaign and research institutes – and is succeeding.”

Israel Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who initiated the NGO bill, with Likud MK Gilad Erdan in the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

Brilliant, but where’s the left’s response?

“There’s no simple answer. You have to start explaining what democracy is, explaining that Israel is not a normal country, that it’s in a conflict and the military controls territories that are not sovereign. It’s complicated to respond to the claim of ‘foreign agents.’”

Life’s complicated, so what?

“Right, so I say let’s think of a successful move too. The challenge is to build the left up again, for it to be effective. Can I pull something out of thin air? No.”

Maybe give up?

“Give up and move to Berlin or the United States?”

No, give up the foreign funding. Raise money and support locally.

“The country was established with financing from outside, endless educational projects, infrastructure, elections, settlements. Anyhow, money that can come from governments goes to certain, very specific projects. It’s legitimate that foreign ministries of democracies all over the world promote democratic values in things connected to the conflict. It’s part of their agenda, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Right-wing activists in Tel Aviv protest on March 31, 2016 in support of the soldier who killed a subdued Palestinian attacker in Hebron.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Let’s talk about J Street. The response you published to the appointment of Dani Dayan as Israeli consul general in New York said the government of Israel was once again making a political appointment of a person identified with the settlements to a senior diplomatic post, and thus sending a problematic message to the Jews of the U.S., who do not identify with him.

“Yes, that was our response when we found out about the appointment, and then it came out that before that he was interviewed on i24news and said that J Street is an anti-Israel organization and un-Jewish. We responded to that again, and then he apologized. He said that when he was interviewed he didn’t know he would be appointed consul and admitted it was undiplomatic of him. Later he apologized on Twitter.”

Marchers at the Celebrate Israel Parade, in New York City, May 31, 2015. Credit: Reuters

It’s not just Dayan, the entire right doesn’t really like you.

“For Israel’s sake the Israeli right must understand that there is a difference between loving Israel and being critical of Israel’s government. The problem is that it’s not willing to accept this difference. That’s damaging. It also distances friends and contributes to making Israel more isolated. The Jews of the United States understand this better.”

How do the authorities in Israel treat you? Don’t they close the door to you?

“No. Everyone understands that we’re the biggest Jewish student group in the U.S. and you can’t not work with us or not be connected to us. We have 10,000 students at more than 70 campuses according to the number of people who sign petitions and come to events, at the moment we think the figure is 180,000.”

What are the biggest disagreements between the American Jewish community and the Israeli government?

“The biggest story is around the end of the conflict, moving ahead the two-state idea and the tendency to always prefer the diplomatic solution. The American Jewish community is motivated by Jewish values that speak of repairing the world, social justice and equality.”

You describe a disconnect between the American Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community. Here the public is turning rightward, even more so in the current intifada.

“Correct. There are real opposite trends. But there is still a lot of sympathy for Israel in the U.S. because of a story that feels similar. Two countries of immigrants, both democracies, with a Judeo-Christian context that is relevant to a big part of the American population, that always had a connection to the Holy Land, the Bible and the People of the Book.”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016. Credit: AP

What do you think of the applause Donald Trump got at the AIPAC conference?

“That’s a perfect example of why J Street was founded in 2008 as a young and vibrant...”


“Because pro-Israeli American Jews didn’t have a political home. The positions that J Street represents are the positions of most American Jews. Trump’s attacks on Obama as president and Clinton as secretary of state and the applause he got don’t represent most American Jews.”

Does Trump scare the Jews?


Also because there’s no pressure on him?

“Yes, he’s a free bird, and he raises feelings of fear and racism and xenophobia. The Jews know that in the end he could get to them. They are totally against him.”

What is your next role?

“I would be happy to work for the Foreign Ministry someday. My dream is to be Israeli ambassador in Palestine.”

Well, that’s a dream you could have your whole life.

“I’m very committed to peace, even when it becomes less popular.”