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.