1. Are these the best days for liberal advocates of Israel?
The celebratory relief came across loud and clear, even through the virtual medium forced upon organizers due to the COVID pandemic.
Determined not to let the pandemic ruin their celebration, J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby, convened its annual policy conference this week, full of A-list American, Israeli and Palestinian speakers and an aggressive legislative agenda, all online.
The speakers did not neglect to state the obvious to the crowd of almost 5,000 virtual participants: The end of Trump’s four years and the beginning of a Democratic era is a joyous moment for J Street.
“It marks a new day to which we have emerged from the darkness of the Trump era,” said J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami in his opening remarks to participants. “The U.S., under the Biden-Harris administration, now begins to chart a new course.”
J Street’s celebration may be well warranted.
Ever since Joe Biden took office and Democrats became the majority party in both chambers of Congress, all of the dovish lobby’s dreams seem to have come true: One by one, the administration has been rolling back Trump-era policies adopted to marginalize the Palestinians; American foreign aid money is once again flowing to Palestinian causes; Israel is being called out when it crosses the line on settlement activity, and the term “two-state solution” is back in America’s diplomatic lexicon. Not to mention the launch of a diplomatic effort aimed at reviving the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump had dropped out of, triggering an Iranian resumption of nuclear activity.
“In the Trump years, we were in the opposition and tried to lead oppositions on Israeli-Palestinian issues and on Iran,” said Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president of communications. “With Democrats in control, our role is shifting.”
U.S. policy toward the Middle East seems to be falling back in line with how pro-Israel Jewish Democrats have always viewed it: positively pro-Israel, strictly supportive of a vision in which Palestinians have their own independent state alongside Israel and staunchly opposed to Israeli moves that undermine this vision or constitute a clear breach of human rights.
And there’s more.
Beyond policy, J Street and other players on the center-left of the pro-Israel camp feel that doors to the corridors of power are open once again. Gone are the four difficult years they had to endure under Trump, with a Middle East team that ignored any voice left of AIPAC, and with his ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who famously called J Street “kapos.” J Street and its allies are now on the field again, providing advice, receiving input from the administration, and making their mark.
2. But there’s a catch
This, of course, is all too good to be true.
Biden has already done a lot to satisfy pro-Israel liberals and is clearly en route to bringing America’s Middle East policy back to where it was when he last occupied the White House, as vice president under Obama.
At the same time, Biden has also made clear that he has no intention of launching a new American peace initiative and that he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a low-priority issue. Biden has also shown no appetite for applying pressure on Israel, and during the presidential campaign, he rejected the idea of conditioning U.S. foreign aid on Israel’s behavior in the West Bank.
These are policy lines that many pro-Israel Jewish Democrats will be just fine with, but that’s not necessarily where J Street and liberals have generally stood. They would like to see a more assertive American posture, one that actively seeks ways to advance the two-state solution (even if full engagement in a new peace plan is not possible right now) and they’d like to see America reinforce its anti-settlement, anti-annexation message, just as Bernie Sanders and his progressive allies have been calling for.
And this is exactly where J Street and other liberals in the pro-Israel camp start to feel uneasy. On the one hand, they’ve already achieved so much in the few months Biden has been in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress. But on the other hand, it’s somewhat of a gilded cage, potentially preventing them from moving policy further to the left.
Can pro-Israel liberals now take the next step and pressure Biden, or do they owe him a debt of gratitude that prevents them from pushing too hard?
3. Ramping up the pressure on Israel
J Street believes that it can move beyond the Biden/centrist comfort zone—at least to a certain extent.
One area the lobby is focusing on is ensuring that American policy not only condemns settlement activity and denounces annexation, but also makes clear to Israel that there is a real-life price to pay for these types of activities.
During its last conference, back in October 2019, J Street went out on a limb and featured then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and other Democrats who voiced a clear demand to cut U.S. assistance if Israel moves to annex the territories or increase its settlement activity.
Now J Street is trying to get a similar idea codified into legislation.
The group is backing a bill, introduced by Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, which would tie American military aid to Israel—an annual $3.8 billion package, used mostly for purchases from U.S. defense contractors—to Israel’s behavior vis-à-vis the Palestinians, including claims of human rights violations, incarceration of children, house demolitions, settlement expansion and annexation.
McCollum has been a long-time progressive critic of Israeli policies, well before anyone even heard of “the Squad,” and throughout the years, her legislative priorities on Israel have hardly gained traction among her fellow Democrats.
Things might be a bit different now, with progressives becoming more of a force within the party and with some centrists willing to entertain the idea of tying aid to Israel’s actions in the West Bank.
But this is by no means a mainstream Democratic idea and, almost needless to say, has very little chance of winning congressional approval.
This doesn’t matter much for J Street.
Being on the scene for more than 13 years has made the dovish lobby savvier and more appreciative of the long-term game. Ideas once seen as marginal (think, for example, of openly lobbying against Israeli policies) have since been normalized and are part of the Jewish-American political discourse. Imposing penalties on Israel because of its government’s action could be next.
4. Reformulating the two-state solution
A trickier area for J Street is actually making sure the Biden administration advances a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Because even diehard liberals understand that conditions are not ripe now for a major U.S. peace initiative. Israel has held four election cycles in just two years, and while all were sorely indecisive, they made clear that the Israeli public is growing less and less supportive of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, political stagnation and loss of trust have driven support for a peaceful division of the land to an all-time low.
“In the 2020s we recognize that our focus is going to have to be more on opposing the occupation and stopping creeping annexation than on restarting a peace process that at the moment would have little chance of success,” said Ben-Ami.
And this is where J Street is looking to be creative.
Cautiously, the lobby is trying out a new concept: advancing a two-state solution without using the term “two-state solution” which only turns off Israelis, Palestinians, and—quite frankly—most American policymakers.
J Street is doing so by introducing the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “confederation.”
The basic idea is to reach a “soft” two-state solution, one in which Israelis and Palestinians will have their independence, but remain tied together through a confederation structure, without hard borderlines and full separation, but rather a cooperative model, based loosely on the idea of the European Union.
“It is not ‘we are here and you are there, and we don’t want to see you anymore and let’s have a big wall,’” explained Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician and diplomat who is among those promoting the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation. “We are speaking about friends and not about foes.”
The idea has its pros and cons.
Supporters note that it will avoid the need for an immediate evacuation of Israeli settlers from areas in Palestinian control, it can make security arrangements easier, and—in general—make the processes easier to swallow, especially for Israelis who are growing reluctant to pay the price of a full two-state solution.
On the other hand, confederation will still require real compromise. Palestinians will have to give up many of the attributes of full sovereignty, while Israel will be required to draw a real border roughly along the 1967 lines, even if this border will be permeable and easy to access.
Falling short of a full endorsement of the idea, J Street is serving as the main platform for introducing the concept to American audiences. The group has made clear that a confederation is not a substitute for a two-state solution, but rather a creative way of reaching this goal.
If it wins support among policymakers in Washington, the dovish lobby will be well-positioned to reap the benefits of being there first. And even if it doesn’t make it to the mainstream, by raising the confederation idea, J Street can stay true to its mission of seeking ways to advance a solution for the conflict, without applying too much pressure on a friendly administration.
5. Counting dovish troops in Congress
At the end of the day, politics comes down to counting the votes, and J Street is well aware of the need to win over as many supporters as possible in Congress.
The pool is limited to Democrats, since J Street, while not partisan in definition, is, for all intents and purposes, a player only in the Democratic field.
Within the party, the lobby boasts that it has made significant gains, noting that it endorsed more than half of all Democrats in Congress. For those following J Street’s history, there was a time when receiving an endorsement from the liberal lobby was seen as a political liability in some Democratic circles. These times are gone.
Also, it is noteworthy that the two top Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, sent video greetings to the conference.
Schumer and Pelosi, needless to say, are no doves when it comes to Israel.
Is the party really shifting to the left?
Polls suggest this is true on the grassroots level, but in Congress movement is slower and not always noticeable.
“There are still old school conservative voices [in the Democratic Party,] but the number of these voices is dwindling,” said Bayroff.
Reality may dispute the claim that these voices are dwindling and how fast, but at least for now, movement can be noticed on both sides: Democrats, by and large, are becoming more accepting of critical voices on Israel, and J Street, on its behalf, is becoming more considerate of the Democrats’ political limitations.