Sunday, October 18, 2009

J Street And World Order

J Street calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace"; the "therefore" is implied. And the priority given to "pro-Israel" in the branding suggests, what most commentators reasonably assume, that J Street aims to give a home to American Jews who, comfortable with identity politics, suppose their anxiety about Israel constitutes a kind of secular Jewish identity; but Jews who also think that successive Israeli governments have hurt Israelis (and, by association, Jews everywhere) with settlements and a repressive occupation--you know, Jews who poll as "progressives" and have felt that Jewish leaders in Washington do not speak for them. (I have assumed something like this case myself.)

Though he downplays this gracefully in various public appearances, J Street's extraordinary Jeremy Ben-Ami obviously means "pro-Israel, pro-peace" to compare favorably with the stance of AIPAC supporters: increasingly rightist American Jews who will favor attacks on Iran if necessary, continued occupation if necessary, and who look to the Israeli government to say what's necessary. These AIPAC Jews, Ben-Ami reminds us, are only a quarter of American Jews; but they've captured the high ground on Capitol Hill for a generation.

Yet putting things this way--"pro-Israel, (therefore) pro-peace"--may be underestimating both AIPAC’s achievement and J Street's opportunity. For AIPAC actually became influential in Washington because it defined itself at a critical time not as "pro-Israel, pro-(well,) toughness" but as "pro-freedom, (therefore) pro-Israel." AIPAC's claim may have been wrong but the sequence in the rhetoric mattered.

And, increasingly, it will matter for J Street as well. If the upcoming J Street conference succeeds--as it almost certainly will--it will launch J Street into an orbit that does not simply revolve around how various Jewish demographics fight out their differences over Jewish "interests." It will put J Street squarely in a debate about America in the world.

IT MAY BE hard to remember this now, but the post-war American State Department, from George Marshall to George Kennan, was institutionally opposed to Truman's decision to recognize Israel or support it thereafter. State remained wrapped-up in the need to secure America's oil interests in the Gulf, and through the Kennedy administration was mainly concerned about preventing Israel from developing nuclear weaopons. (I go into this at length in this recent Nation article.)

For its part, AIPAC was founded in 1953 to advance support for the infant Israel in the Congress; and AIPAC remained puny through most of the 50s and 60s. Yes, Israel's prestige rose immeasurably after it beat back threats from its neighbors in 1967, defeating Soviet clients. But then, Israel's assumed military superiority, buttressed by American jets, made lobbying in its behalf seem more or less superfluous. Lyndon Johnson was (like Truman) influenced by Jewish liberal friends like Abe Fortas. When Nixon came into office Israeli diplomats like Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin were all that was needed; Henry Kissinger was so sure that Israel would make short-shrift of any Arab attack that he asked the IAF to intervene in Jordan's behalf during Black September 1970, and even rebuffed Soviet efforts to start a peace process in the summer of 1973.

AIPAC became prominent only during the aftermath of the 1973 War; a bloody war that shocked American Jews of all kinds into action; a war in which Kissinger had to mount a huge airlift and a nuclear alert to save Israel from a stalemate, arguing (plausibly, after the Jordan intervention in 1970) that Israel was, after all, America's key strategic asset in a fight against Soviet Empire. AIPAC embraced this formulation and extended it, supported by budding neoconservative circles, and influential senators like "Scoop" Jackson. Eventually, AIPAC even used it against Kissinger when he tried to pursue detente or pressure Israel to surrender territory in the Sinai in 1975.

In other words, the key to AIPAC's emergence was a Manichean view from America; the fight against the Evil Empire, or since 9/11, the clash of civilizations. In this drama, Israel became cast as America's biggest regional aircraft carrier. AIPAC has succeeded by staying close to American hardliners, arguing against pressuring Israel (to give up territory, to stop settlements, etc.) for the same reason a basketball coach will not foolishly demoralize his slightly brazen power-forward. At the center of the argument was a way of thinking about American hegemony in a dangerous world.

YOU CAN SAY that AIPAC was misguided, that it’s even become a pernicious force, but you can't deny that it got its strategic premises ordered properly. One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want. One has to start with America's foreign policy strategy and then apply its logic to the Middle East. Crucially, this means building coalitions with non-Jews as well, as any watcher of FOX News can see.

Indeed, what J Street really represents--what progressives argue for--is not just support for Israel as such, but for a globalist strategy in which Middle East peace is a key pillar; a strategy of collective security agreements, regional alliances, and international peace-keeping; of patient engagement over the unilateral use of force; of recognition that offering access to economic development and cultural freedom over time is hard power (I hate the term "soft power"); indeed, of the power to attract, not only the power to deter. It means diplomatic containment, not foreign invasion and counter-insurgency. It means what, say, Chuck Hagel calls "realism."

It is within this logic that America’s urgent search for regional Middle East peace is "pro-Israel"--but also pro-Palestinian, pro-Jordanian. Which means that J Street will become a focus for a coalition supporting goals that would make President Obama worthy of his Nobel: deescalation in Afganistan, containment of (not an attack on) Iran, building cooperation with the EU.

This larger coalition is only beginning to get mobilized. General Jones's agreement to come to the conference suggests the administration will be counting on it. Once a healthcare bill is enacted, and the fear of dissipating the solidarity of its Congressional supporters passes (does Obama really want to pick a fight with Joe Lieberman now?), expect the will of this administration--and this coalition--to be felt powerfully in Jerusalem and Ramallah.


Y. Ben-David said...

Although your analysis of the growth of AIPAC's influence sounds correct, J-Street simply has too many internal contradictions to become influential. For example, I see that you are on its list of advisors or some such position. You have repeatedly called for punitive sanctions to be placed on Israel in the past in order to convince the "Israelis" (what you call the secular, entrepeneurial crowd) to use force to get rid of the "Judeans" (the right-wing, Orthodox settlers and their supporters). Now, how can the 100 or so Congressman who claim to be supporters of J-Street say that advocating punitive sanctions can appear to be "pro-Israel" to most people? Sure, you progressives have concocted a weird scenario that says punishing Israel is really "good for it". But Israel's outright enemies also want the same punish Israel. So how is Mr Congressman supposed to make clear the difference if he supports punitive sanctions? There are always going to be pro-Israel people who oppose this approach so J-Street will be painting itself as an incoherent body that has no clear policy.
Similarly, I see many supporters of J-Street supporting putting Israelis involved in the Gaza war on trial for war crimes. Again, is this "pro-Israel"?
J-Street is basically a collection of malcontents who oppose traditional Israeli gov't policy and American policy towards Israel, but who really have nothing in common because some really do care about Israel, others are American Jews who view Israel as an embarrassment and want a political vehicle in which to express their estrangement from it. Thus, J-Street can not survive in the long-term.

ks said...

Ah, but...seems to me belittling J-Street squeaks feebly of its incipient power and resounding truth. J-Street is the case of a once-isolate majority finding its consolidated voice. KS

Anonymous said...

Has Mr. Avishai seen the Oct. 16 memo from J Street's new policy & strategy director, Hadar Susskind, which in part states:
"[S]hould engagement not produce the desired results, we too believe that the United States should seek hard-hitting multilateral sanctions through the United Nations Security Council. If that course of action proves impossible, then the U.S. should work to build the broadest possible international coalition to back such steps"?
It seems J Street is allowing itself to be sucked into the US-led international "get Iran" economic sanctions campaign (the same strategy used against Iraq in 1990s and Gaza for past 2 years). If J Street goes that route, the chances it can accomplish the worthy objectives outlined in Mr. Avishai's essay are greatly reduced.
JM, Tokyo

kahane said...

Mr. Ben-David uses the phrase 'punitive sanctions.' I will ask him, for the sake of argument, to imagine replacing it with 'accountability.' This does not require acceptance of the idea that the state of Israel has something to be accountable for. It is, however, a prerequisite for following this analogy:

Let's pretend we're all a bunch of Jews in some shtetl. A group of some of our more prominent citizens have been accused by some non-Jews in a neighboring village of wrongdoing. Not pedestrian wrongdoing, mind you-- something that, if it is true, goes against our core principles [killing dozens of theirs indiscriminately for the indiscriminate murder of one of ours, for instance]. Now the problem is that we've had trouble with this village. In fact, many of their members would initiate a pogrom if they only had the manpower. We are all in agreement that these are not our friends.
However, many of our own citizens are dismayed by the accusations because they do not seem unfounded. A goverment bureaucrat, one of our own, has said he's looked into it and believes there's something to the claims. Enough to warrant our attention.
Some of us say that if these men are guilty of wrongdoing in their interactions with non-Jews, they should be held accountable according to the law of the land. And if the law of the land in this case is punitive, so be it.

Setting aside the veracity of the claims for a moment, can you imagine someone standing up and saying that it would be bad for the shtetl and bad for the prominent group accused to look into it and hold them accountable [or clear their names, as the case may be]? And if they are indeed guilty of wrongdoing, would someone say that in this case, we should ignore the law of the land because it's not in our best interests and there are people who wish to use it against us on principle?
Unless you are part of a parallel universe-Jewish tradition that is diametrically opposed to the one I grew up in, you'd have to agree that personal accountability is a cornerstone of our identity. Unless you read a parallel universe-version of our history, maintaining autonomy and our own traditions while avoiding conflict with our neighbors whenever possible has been a philosophy that speaks to our very survival. That doesn't mean not defending ourselves, it just means doing so in a way that is in line with our principles and does not invite trouble... the kind of impotent trouble that will erupt when the opportunity presents itself, vis-a-vis Kristallnacht in Vienna. This is not about what we can do at this particular point in history, but what we should do.

Before you rush to dismiss this analogy as politically naive, please remember that my point is only to question the idea that this Israeli regime should be held accountable/punished if it's clear they've stepped over the line.
That a line has been crosssed is clear to pretty much everyone outside of Likud hardliners, the Jews who cry 'self hater' at the first hint of Jewish criticism of Israeli policy, and to people like Dick Cheney.

kahane said...

..question your dismissal of that idea I mean....

Potter said...

I should not have read the comments before making this comment. My first reaction to the blog entry: it's a part of a cohesive vision that I believe there is a hunger for, that not only makes sense and gives hope but seems like the only positive way out or through or forward. Here Israel fits into the Middle East which fits into an evolved global picture,

Once people see that vision they will choose it. So they have to see it. People are capable of getting the nuance, seeing down the road, making the leap from their fears, their frightened self-protective positions towards the less risky ( every way is risky) and the more broadly embracing. Tell people of something better for their children and they will persist towards that. Religious beliefs blend in because this is never about mere survival. So I also don't see how accountability and atonement) can be avoided.

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