Jeremy Ben-Ami of the liberal lobbying group J Street is the man of the moment: The group's upcoming conference in Washington has become a source of great controversy for many reasons. I interviewed Ben-Ami yesterday by telephone, and here is an edited transcript of our conversation. In our talk, he showed that he learned a bit about triangulation during his years in the Clinton White House. He declared himself a Zionist; condemned the book "The Israel Lobby"; called America's military aid package to Israel untouchable; and told me he hopes his group angers the non-Zionist left by staking out mainstream Jewish positions on Israel and the peace process -- "I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us."
Jeffrey Goldberg: Let's just go right to the Stephen Walt question. Why do you think Walt (the co-author of the book "The Israel Lobby") likes J Street?
Jeremy Ben-Ami: I don't know and I don't care. One of the reasons why I won't answer your call to quote-unquote renounce him is that it really smacks of witch-hunts and thought-police. It's not my business to "renounce."
JG: Witch-hunt? How is it a witch-hunt to argue that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blame the organized American Jewish community for starting the Iraq War and even helping cause 9/11? It's a statement of fact, it's in their book. I would think that when you have an organization, like you do, one of the ways you define yourself is by saying what you do and don't stand for--
JB: May I finish? I actually respect your writing. I respect your thinking. But then there are the people like Michael Goldfarb, who is a Republican political operative who is masquerading as a (Weekly Standard) journalist. And when he goes after us, and asks people to verify their loyalty to certain principles, that's a different thing. But I'm more than happy to tell you why, on a personal basis, I don't like what Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have written in their book and in their articles. I don't agree with Stephen Walt. It's his business whether or not he chooses to say nice things about us. I have zero right to tell him, and I have zero interest in telling him, not to say what he thinks. That is his business.
JG: Tell me about the problem with his thesis.
JB: Here's where the line is. There is no question that over the last 40 to 50 years, the American Jewish community has developed a very sophisticated lobbying mechanism to promote its views and its interests, and I am in awe of that as a student of politics. I also happen to respect and value much of what has been achieved. For instance, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the essential security guarantee that the U.S. provides, the notion that Israel should always have a qualitative military edge -- those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the "Israel lobby." J Street is very happy with these achievements, and we support those ends, and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years.
However, when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line. I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn't take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.
JG: You have a situation now in which the Obama Administration has obviously failed to achieve a settlement freeze. You believe that the American government should pressure both the Arabs and the Israelis to come to the table and reach a deal. If Israel ignores the entreaties of the American president, should continuing American military aid to Israel be up for discussion?
JB: The short answer is no, but there's actually a longer explanation for the no. The short answer is that military aid should not be on the table -- this is an absolutely essential aspect of Israel's security, and it's an essential aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, the U.S. should be able to get across that, as an ally, and as a partner in this relationship with its own interests and view of what will actually move the situation forward, its voice and its views need to be listened to, and that means some serious, behind-closed-doors conversations between the president and the prime minister.
JG: But they've already had those.
JB: I don't know what took places in those conversations.
JG: Well, they didn't work yet.
JB: It's very, very early in the process. What J Street has said is that this issue of a settlement freeze is not the place to put all your cards on the table. If this is a card game, I wouldn't go all in on the settlement freeze. I think that the settlement freeze is an important precondition, it's an important early issue, but the fundamental issue is to get to two states, let's get to a final status agreement, and it's at that point that I think the full force of the U.S. should be brought to bear on all the parties. And let me be really clear: all the parties. When we get to that point, there should be a very, very different and serious conversation. I don't think this is the point to go all in.
JG: Are you a Zionist?
JB: I am a Zionist personally. I am deeply committed to a Jewish home, to a democratic home, to a Jewish Israel. I'm deeply committed to that and you know my family background.
JG: Ben-Ami is a Jewish name, I think.
JB: Exactly. My great-grandparents were in the First Aliyah, my grandparents founded Tel Aviv, my father was in the Irgun. I've lived in Israel myself. I have 500 cousins there. I'm deeply committed to the safety, the sanctity and the security of a Jewish home in the state of Israel.
JG: Is J Street a Zionist organization?
JB: Well, we are unabashedly for a Jewish home in the land of Israel, that there should be a Jewish home that is a democracy, that has a Jewish character and a Jewish flavor and where the law of return is a fact -- I know you're having a disagreement with Bernie (Avishai) right now. I don't even know what he said about the right of return.
JG: That he wants it repealed.
JB: Well I don't agree with that, I certainly don't agree with that. I think that the notion is that there should be a homeland that is a Jewish homeland. That is the founding principle of J Street. The question is, how do we preserve it? That's where we seem to be getting attacked. Our view is that in order to preserve this, there just simply has to be an independent state for the Palestinians next door, and that's where they will live. And we live in Israel and we live there and there's always going to be a minority in Israel that is not Jewish and we need to treat them like equal citizens and value their participation in our democracy, but it is a Jewish home. This is the Jewish homeland.