by Jeremy Ben-Ami
Palgrave Macmillan. 2011
Jeremy Ben-Ami is a first rate political operator. In four short years he has made J Street a $5 million organisation and successfully built a Washington power base in opposition to the AIPAC juggernaut and the rest of the so called ‘pro-Israel’ lobby. With its mantra of ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace’, J Street funds electoral battles, lobbies Congress and attempts to reframe the terms of debate. It has also spawned international imitators such as the predominantly French JCall and the recent UK start-up Yachad. Unfortunately Ben Ami’s skills as a theorist do not match his organisational success. A New Voice for Israel (subtitled ‘Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation’) proves insufficient to jump-start a renewed peacemaking effort; his preference for platitudes over difficult questions leaves the book an exercise in nostalgia rather than an effective call to arms.
The book opens well, with Ben Ami using his family narrative to explain his position today, beginning with his grandparents’ status as founder residents of Tel Aviv. He goes on to focus on his father, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, a socialist idealist in the Ahad Ha’am mould who became a Jabotinskyite revisionist following the Arab riots of 1929. After rising up the ranks of the Irgun he devoted himself in the late 1930s to bringing in Jewish immigrants to Palestine, taking him first to Vienna and then to New York. In doing so he was opposed both by the British and the Zionist establishment. The latter wanted to prioritise the legal route, operating under the British quota, despite being set at disastrously low levels. In the USA, the American Jewish establishment, comprised of anti—Zionists and socialist Zionists, fiercely opposed the work of the revisionists through every available means, with the result that far less European Jews were saved than otherwise would have been possible. Ben Ami uses his father’s life story to powerful effect — just as the American Jewish leadership was wrong then, it is wrong now. Now, as then, the appropriate way to deal with critical voices is “not to reflexively shut them down but to engage them on the merits and see what value there may be in what they are trying to say.”
Ben Ami goes on to tell a story of generational change, of the differing views of Israel held by those, like his parents, who lived through the foundation of the state, and those like him who grew up after the 1967 war. His full awakening came during an extended stay in Israel in the 1990s, when he discovered that “yes, the Palestinians are a people, and yes they do believe that my people came and threw them out of the homes and took their country away from them”. From this vantage point he views witha mix of understanding and alarm the children of the 1980s for whom “the defining images of Israel are of intifada and occupation”, alongside many who see Israel as increasingly irrelevant to their Jewish identity. While Ben Ami is disappointed by those that would prefer not to think about Israel, he is more concerned by the other outgrowth of this constituency, the pro- Palestinian and BDS movements, dominated by young Jews. Ben Ami criticises attempts to silence these younger groups, and is keen to distinguish between those who he sees as beyond the pale and those that have a legitimate point of view. But frequently he comes across as trying to stem a tidal wave, advocating piecemeal remedies when radical surgery is required. He recognises the radical changes in Jewish life, with younger Jews seeking expressions of Jewishness outside the mainstream, but laments their lack of connection to the ‘vibrant network of young activists’ in Israel. This wish for a greater sense of Jewish ‘peoplehood’ is widespread amongst Jewish leaders, but it seems rather futile, given the anti-parochial universalist stance of many young diaspora Jews, who see Israel as one country among many that do not yet live up to their view of justice.
At the heart of Ben Ami’s case is a critique of contemporary American Jewish leadership (one that could easily be applied throughout the Diaspora), describing it as out of touch, unrepresentative and committed to stymieing debate around Israel and Jewish identity. This is justified, but entirely unoriginal. Such a critique might have had an impact 10 years ago, but in the wake of a decade of criticism, most notably from John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, it comes across as merely stating the obvious. The question of timing is pertinent — this is a book rooted in the early 1990s (the author was a Clinton aide) and Ben Ami is trapped in a Clintonian paradigm. Like many who came to prominence in that era, he focuses on the technocratic, believing that the ‘Clinton Parameters’ that were utilised at Camp David and Taba negotiations are sufficient to solve the conflict. In keeping with this he is resistant to making any deeper analysis; into nationalism, into inequalities of power or into the events of 1948, and he is at his least comfortable when dealing with the events of the last decade, be they the second intifada, the Wall, or the blockade of Gaza.
The book is at its weakest when it moves from diagnosis of the problem to potential solutions. Naturally, Ben Ami, like all centrist politicians, believes in the two state solution. So, however, does Benjamin Netanyahu (apparently), and he has managed to combine this professed belief with continuing settlement expansion and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. Ben Ami has nothing to say about people (like the supposedly saintly Shimon Peres) who wax lyrical about the two state solution while making no criticism of checkpoints, house demolitions or collective punishment. Predictably, Ben Ami rules any kind of one state solution out of court without any discussion, and, more dangerously, declares any return of Palestinian refugees impossible, claiming that those who believe in it “oppose the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people”. An agreement with only limited numbers of Palestinian refugees returning to Israel might indeed be possible, but such a crucial issue cannot be ruled out of court at the outset, and the attempt to do so reveals a view of the conflict in which Israelis have red lines that must be respected while Palestinians hold extremist views that need to be watered down. Ben Ami’s most damning failure is his response to the planned Palestinian declaration of independence. Rather than welcoming a diplomatic move that is obviously a manifestation of the two state solution, Ben Ami calls for the US to “pre-empt this with an active and ambitious diplomatic initiative to achieve a two state solution”. Essentially then, the US should veto the creation of a Palestinian state, in order to make possible the creation of a Palestinian state. The subtext is clear — Israelis must be the ones to take the initiative, Palestinians the passive recipients of whatever largesse the international community decides to throw their way.
Street’s timidity was most apparent in the debacle of 2009-10, in which Obama publicly demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction beyond the Green Line. The Israeli government, despite agreeing a limited ten-month freeze, refused to accede to the President’s demand, creating a long standoff at the end of which Netanyahu proved victorious and Obama was humiliated. At this juncture Obama needed to utilise the key sticks of US foreign policy, threatening America’s arm sales to Israel, her loan guarantees and her diplomatic support at the UN. This would surely have been the moment J Street was designed for; it needed to be there to support Obama against the furious Israel lobby and to show that such pressure was not anti-Israel, but in her best long term interests. None of this happened, because the mainstream lobby was too strong and J-Street too weak, making it politically impossible for Washington to dictate terms to its long-term ally. Reviewing this period, Ben Ami describes the call for a settlement freeze as a tactical error on Obama’s part. The president should, instead, have put his political capital into defining the borders of a Palestinian state, making it clear ‘who can build where’. It is unclear why Ben-Ami thinks this would have made any difference; the issue is that Israel’s government demonstrably no longer believes in a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, preferring a much reduced territory on the West Bank that lies somewhere between glorified local government and a Bantustan. It wasn’t Obama’s rhetoric that was the problem; it was his inability to put real pressure on the recalcitrant government of Netanyahu and Lieberman and J Street’s unwillingness to support such muscular action.
With this we come full circle. Jeremy Ben Ami’s theoretical weakness underpins a failure of realpolitik. His inability to think beyond Clinton era soundbites and his naiveté in the face of the Israeli right stands in the way of J-Street’s potential to change the terms of the political debate. This has wider implications, especially for those like Yachad, who operate in J Street’s image. The task is surely to create a diasporic movement that will put massive pressure on Israel to end the occupation, both directly and via national governments across the world. It needs to harness the energy of BDS and pro-Palestinian activists, away from purely negative condemnation of Israel towards a positive strategy of targeting the occupation with the aim of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Organisations that devote all their energy to appearing moderate enough to appease the establishment are likely to fail in this task; without a genuine and unflinching analysis they deny themselves the resources they need to actually make a difference.