Thomas G. Mitchell, Ph.D., an independent scholar, is a longtime contributor to our blog.
For those of us who either lack the time or the money to attend J Street’s national conferences, the decision several years ago to record the sessions and put them out for public viewing on YouTube was a major service. Although I attended J Street’s first conference in 2009, I have not been back since, but I like to take the time to review the major panels online. This combined with an ongoing exchange of emails with Jeremy Ben-Ami have given me insight into the liberal Zionist lobby’s thinking since its founding. From this year’s conference I came away with several observations.
First, the liberal Zionists in both the United States and Israel were coping with the shock of losing another election, after having been led to believe by polls that the Zionist Camp (a more accurate translation from the Hebrew name than Zionist Union) had a real shot at victory. But like the Herut party before 1977, accepting defeat should have been easy because they had so much practice at it.
Guy Ziv, an Israeli academic who teaches in Washington, expressed the view that the goal of the Center-Left should be the creation of two large blocs of the Left and Right. This was the situation that prevailed in Israel from 1974 to 1996 until the short-lived electoral “reform” of the double-vote created a plethora of medium-sized parties at the expense of the two main parties that had been created in the 1960s and 1970s from the merger of several smaller parties. But during this period of two-party domination, Labor after Golda Meir was only able to obtain power when headed by a popular former general who was running a campaign focused around the leader and not the party. When Barak left Labor in 2011 he took the last of Labor’s well-known generals with him. During the 1977 to 1996 period the party’s civilian leader, Shimon Peres, was only able to campaign to a draw in one election (1984) that resulted in a national unity government. In his other four runs as Labor’s nominee he lost. Hertzog at best seems comparable to Peres in his electoral prospects. Labor desperately needs a new war hero.
Second, the future of the two-state solution may be in danger from the Palestinian side. On a panel on Palestinian leadership a Palestinian speaking in a native American accent, Khaled Elgindy, mentioned that he was pressing to have anyone in the Palestinian diaspora allowed to register to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority. If this passes there will be no hope of getting rid of the Palestinian “right of return” for refugees and their descendants to Israel. This is a non-starter as far as all of the Jewish parties in Israel are concerned. If Mahmoud Abbas allows this in either a bid to pressure Israel or to reconcile with or compete with Hamas, than there will be no future for the two-state solution.
Third, Peter Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, has been successfully co-opted by J Street. In 2013 Beinart was dismissive of J Street in his book The Crisis of Zionism, because J Street had no influence in the Republican Party, and to be effective, a political lobby needs to have bipartisan support because of the system of checks-and-balances and divided government. When the Republicans control both houses of Congress or even just the House of Representatives, they can prevent the president from mediating effectively between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Benjamin Netanyahu understands this all too well, which explains the time and energy he has devoted to forging links with the Republicans. But Ben-Ami is very good at co-opting his critics by giving them a forum to discuss their views, or in Beinart’s case to comment on the future of liberal Zionism.
Lastly, the Communists still use the specter of fascism to discredit their opponents. This has been a stock in trade for the international Communist movement since the late 1930s when the social democrats were dismissed by Moscow and their Western European allies as “social fascists.” So when Nabila Espanioly of Hadash, the former pro-Moscow Israeli Communist Party, warns of the danger of fascism in Israel it can be taken with a grain of salt. Espanioly looks to be old enough that she would have been active when Hadash was still aligned with Moscow. I understand that J Street wanted to have someone present representing Israel’s internal Palestinian opposition. And someone from Hadash rather than an Islamist or an Arab nationalist would have been more acceptable to American Jews (and vice versa).
Overall, J Street has made impressive growth since its formation in 2008-09. Its annual conferences are much more educational than those of its larger rival, AIPAC. But if J Street is to be a real player for creating a two-state solution and not merely the Zionist fund-raising arm of the Democratic National Committee, it has to be more realistic about the necessary steps needed to create a negotiated solution. In 2013, it was pushing a scenario in which Netanyahu would invite the Labor Party into his coalition so that he could negotiate a peace agreement with Abbas. This year, J Street was counting on Labor winning the election. More realism and a long-term strategy is what are needed to bring peace.