Aid to Israel: Has J Street Changed the Game?
1. Did J Street change the discussion on Israel?
J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby, wrapped up its three-day conference in Washington, DC last week. In an email to supporters summing up the meeting (and making a pitch for donations), the group’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami announced, “We’ve changed the conversation” about Israel, noting that the conference brought the issue of Israel to the Democratic presidential race agenda and that candidates have discussed, among other issues, their plans to “employ U.S. leverage to combat settlement expansion.” Or, in other words, J Street made using American foreign aid to Israel into an issue Democrats are willing to fight for.
There’s a lot of truth to Ben-Ami’s claim.
Before this primary race, the annual $3.8 billion package of military aid to Israel had never been an issue for mainstream politicians from either party. Republicans made a point of suppressing voices from their libertarian and isolationist wings questioning foreign aid, and Democrats worked to contain calls for taking punitive measures against Israel to their far-left quarters.
Now, thanks to J Street, these calls, already gaining more traction in progressive circles, are going mainstream.
The discussion over Israel has changed. Leverage is on the table, and Democrats are forced to take a stand. This doesn’t mean that U.S. military assistance to Israel will be cut, even under an Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders/Pete Buttigieg administration, but the issue of Israel is now framed in a new way: What can Israel do for us?
2. Taking on aid to Israel is a good lifeline for progressives
Israel is a touchy issue for progressive Democrats. They need to navigate a minefield of strongly-held views among their supporters—some holding extreme anti-Israel positions and preaching for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, others looking for a progressive voice that will advance a two-state solution without singling out Israel as the sole reason for the ongoing conflict.
The days of being progressive on all issues except Israel are over, as are the times when a Democratic politician could remain part of the party’s left wing by simply vowing their support for a two-state solution and sending out the occasional press release condemning Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy du jour.
As progressives became a leading force in the Democratic Party, in many ways thanks to Bernie Sanders, pressure has increased within the liberal grassroots to adopt a tougher policy toward Israel.
And this is where the idea of leveraging aid comes in handy.
It provides progressive Democrats with a way out of the bind: Speaking out about cutting funding to Israel under certain conditions comes across as a significant move with real-world implications, something that can go a long way with grassroots activists fed up with their party’s support for Israel. On the other hand, it is nowhere close to BDS and can be easily reconciled with pro-Israel views, appeasing pro-Israel progressives who want to see their party remain actively involved and supportive of Israel.
3. But Biden also has a lot to gain from this debate
It’s also good for Joe Biden, the only candidate among the Democratic frontrunners who is clearly opposed to the move. Biden called the idea “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake.”
Biden has been consistent on the issue of Israel. His approach, once dominant in the Democratic Party, focuses on Israel’s security needs. He has never shied from criticizing the Netanyahu government’s actions, but he made sure that criticism was voiced in the context of deep, unquestioning support for Israel. It’s the AIPAC line: You don’t need to like everything Israel does but always stand behind the basics of the relationship. And within these basics, foreign aid plays a significant role.
Because this debate over U.S. aid to Israel was thrust upon him, Biden just got a great opportunity to brand himself as the most pro-Israel candidate in the race. It won’t help with progressive voters, but he never had them to start with. It can, however, boost his support among centrist Jewish Democrats, both voters and donors.
4. Greenblatt’s out
Last week, Jason Greenblatt cleared his desk, packed up the framed photos of him with Middle East leaders and left the White House. Trump’s special envoy tasked
with advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace has ended his tenure, citing his wish to spend more time with his wife and six children.
It’s easy to say that Greenblatt is leaving without moving Israelis and Palestinians an inch closer. It’s also true. Negotiations have completely broken down, Palestinians are not speaking to Americans, and the idea of a two-state solution, once the bedrock of any future agreement, has been put into question.
But to be fair, most of Greenblatt’s predecessors have also found themselves leaving the job with very little to show for. True, there was a much more sincere effort to work with both sides and present realistic plans that both Israelis and Palestinians can stand behind, but on the ground, not much has changed.
Greenblatt believes that his work, and that of the Trump administration under Jared Kushner’s leadership, has made a mark. Not in getting Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace, but in bringing relations between Israel and some Arab countries out into the open. “In just three years, we see a huge shift with countries being increasingly open about its relationship and engagement with Israel,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview.
And maybe that is Trump’s goal. A “deal of the century” is probably not going to happen, but getting his friends the Israelis and the Saudis a little closer is definitely achievable, and, in fact, is already happening.
5. How long can Israel be without a government?
Remember back in December last year when Israel’s Knesset was dissolved, and new elections were announced? Remember how the April 9 elections ended with no clear winner and a do-over election was called? Remember how that too ended in September with a political deadlock?
Well, Israel still doesn’t have a new government. The government in place is in caretaker status and has limited authorities.
And there’s no end in sight.
Attempts to reach a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White have so far failed, as did efforts to form narrow coalitions either on the right or on the center-left. Israelis’ greatest fear is having to go through a third round of elections, but it is increasingly looking like the only way out.
Constitutional crisis? Sure, if Israel only had a constitution.