Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (the Alliance for Justice and Peace) was founded by a few former Democratic activists and one-term Ratz MK Marcia Freedman in late 2002 in order to counter AIPAC’s influence in the Jewish community and advocate for pressure on Israel to end the occupation. It was based on the conviction that Jews were the critical ethnic and religious constituency in the United States for determining American Israel policy. Brit Tzedek believed in grassroots organizing around chapters that would act within the synagogues of their members and within the local Jewish federations. In 2008, former Clinton administration Democratic activist Jeremy Ben-Ami organized J Street as a Jewish lobbying organization and the following year it absorbed Brit Tzedek.
J Street articulated the premise of “having the President’s back.” In other words J Street would defend a president in the Jewish community if he embarked on a Middle East peace initiative that involved putting pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions. It was NOT created out of a careful analysis of why the Oslo process failed or why the Annapolis initiative of 2007-08 failed. It soon became clear that the president’s back that J Street would be defending would always be that of a Democratic president—for now Obama, in the future possibly Hillary Clinton. This is because J Street only supported Democratic congressional candidates for reelection (with the sole exception of an Arab-American congressman from Louisiana in 2010 who soon renounced J Street’s support). This is both because J Street’s target organizing audience consists of Progressive Jews i.e. liberal Democrats from non-Orthodox Jewish denominations or who are unaffiliated Jews, and because the polarized political climate precludes the establishment of a pro-peace lobby that is bipartisan.
J Street cites the Northern Ireland peace process as a successful model it would like to emulate. But there was bipartisan support for the peace process in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland. J Street’s organizing approach precludes that type of support for a Middle East peace initiative.
Peace initiatives involving both a Labor-Meretz coalition and a Kadima-Labor coalition failed in the past. With Netanyahu back in power in 2009, J Street began lobbying for an Obama peace initiative with the Likud coalition as its Israeli partner. Obama limited the initiative to a couple of major speeches and a phony settlement building freeze in the territories. By 2011 it was over with nothing to show for it. In 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that nearly all Middle East experts predicted would promptly fail. Kerry’s support from Obama amounted to a single speech in Israel. Obama quickly learned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a no-win issue for a sitting president. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already learned that from her husband’s experience and had avoided the issue like the plague during her tenure in office. I don’t expect her to act any differently if she is elected President.
So J Street has no influence with Republicans, little influence with the candidate most likely to win the Democratic nomination, and backed the losing candidate in the 2015 Israeli election. Yet it is unlikely to learn from its mistakes and change ithis approach because J Street has been very successful as an organization. J Street’s real raison d’etre is to raise money for liberal Democrats from American Jews and to defend Democratic presidents in the Jewish community. Those who give money to J Street do so not because they really believe that it will change anything but to express their non-identification with the occupation, the Likud, and AIPAC. J Street contributions are a form of guilt gelt.
J Street’s chapters are mostly found in three regions: the northeast corridor from Washington to Boston, the Great Lakes region and the West Coast. J Street is very thin on the ground between San Diego and the Mississippi River and between Houston and eastern Florida. In practical terms, J Street — through its political action committee, J-PAC — can make sure that Democratic members of Congress in these three main regions are pro-peace rather than pro-settlement. It can also help retain marginal Democratic seats and flip marginal Republican seats. But it has little real influence in the great “flyover” agricultural regions of America that are Republican strongholds. At best, J Street can swing the Senate but not the House. Why is this important?
The Israeli-Egyptian peace process of the 1970s was built upon generous “bribes” to both Egypt and Israel in the form of military and economic aid packages voted by Congress in exchange for their cooperation with Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and Carter’s mediation. Ehud Barak was counting on even more generous American aid in exchange for Israel giving up the Golan Heights as part of a peace treaty with Syria. Likud politicians lobbied their Republican allies to oppose any such aid on the grounds that it would massively increase the Federal debt. It would have—but as a drop in the bucket compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that these same Republicans favored. Because Barak got cold feet based on his own polling of Israeli attitudes towards surrendering the Golan, the issue was never put to the vote in Congress.
It is situations like these that make a good case for the existence of J Street. But if J Street cannot guarantee the type of American bribes to Israel that would be enough for giving up the Golan, how can it be expected to deliver a peace with the Palestinians? A peace treaty with the Palestinians will require the financing of Israel transferring its military bases, not to mention masses of settlers, from the West Bank to Israel proper; plus the international community and Israel paying compensation to Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1948 war.
So the sad truth is that neither the BDS movement nor J Street has a viable strategy for Arab-Israeli peace. For hints on which strategy may be more viable, we will have to look back to the American Civil War era for answers. This is what I intend to tackle in my next post.