An Interview With Jeremy Ben-Ami on Settlements, Beinart, Obama, the Whole Nine Yards

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In what seems to have become an annual tradition here at Goldblog, I interviewed Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and major domo of J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group, in advance of his organization's annual conference, which takes place  in Washington this weekend. (I would do the same with AIPAC's Howard Kohr, but I stopped asking for interviews a long time ago, because the guy hides from the press.) Jeremy and I went over a lot of ground, starting with the White House decision to send a senior National Security Council official, Tony Blinken (who serves as the vice president's national security adviser) to speak at the J Street convention, rather than a cabinet-level officer, or higher. We also spoke about Peter Beinart's call for a boycott of settlement-made products, which Ben-Ami thinks is a  bad idea. The transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think that the White House is scared of J Street?

Jeremy Ben-Ami: I think that the White House is making the political calculation according to what I would term the rule book of American politics, the way that it has always existed.

JG: Which means that you haven't been able to change the rules.

JB: In the four years that J Street has existed, we have not yet successfully changed the rules. That is our mission and that's our goal. We will only succeed in doing that when we build J Street further, and we have more people, and we raise more money, and we have more points of access to the political powers-that-be. That will be when we have succeeded.

JG: Do you think it's because  they judged that sending a higher-ranked official would alienate AIPAC? Or did they make the judgment that J Street isn't important enough to warrant deploying someone like the secretary of state of vice president. It must be frustrating to you, because you're there to advance an agenda you believe the president actually embraces, correct?

JB: You know, I'll let them answer as to what was their calculation. I don't think it advances the ball for me to speculate on their behalf. I would say that they missed an opportunity. I think that there is a real significant base of people out there who are waiting to rally behind the leadership of the president and of this administration to really achieve two states and to really help to cement Israel's future. And I think that base is waiting to be mobilized. And I think that this conference and J Street itself is an opportunity for a leader to really define a new vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. I think if you don't take that opportunity, that you're missing that opportunity.

JG: Let's go to the Beinart op-ed in the Times, in which he called for "Zionist BDS," or boycott, divestment, and sanctions of settlements. By the way, you referred to him as the --

JB: Troubadour! Troubadour of our movement.

JG: What, are you running over there, a Renaissance fair?

JB: You know, it's funny -- the students in J Street U last year, I think they made up a t-shirt that said, "We are Beinart's army." The message that he's putting out there really resonates with a lot of our people in their desire to find a way to integrate their values and their love of Israel. That was the core of his message, and it really resonates with people. A desire to find that way to liberal Zionism.

JG: But you publicly disagreed with his op-ed in which he called for a boycott of products made in settlements. Why do you disagree with it?

JB: Because I don't think that it makes any sense to put negative pressure on people whose behavior you hope to change. I think that the way that Israelis will feel comfortable making the compromises and the sacrifices--and Israel as a whole, not just the settlers --is when they really feel that not only American Jews, but the United States, is going to be there for them. I think if you begin to do things that say, "We're not really with you, we're against you, we're putting pressure on you," I think that causes people to pull more into a shell and pull back

JG: Under pressure they harden, they don't soften.

JB: Yes.

JG: Is that an Israeli national characteristic, or is that just a human response to pressure?

JB: I think it's both. I think it's very human, and then I think it's doubly so, probably not just for Israelis, but I think for the Jewish people as a whole. I think it's sort of characteristic of us that I think we're very used to being under pressure, under criticism, under attack. And it doesn't sit well, and you get defensive, and your defenses go up. Rather than it making you more inclined to do something, it actually makes you less inclined.

JG: Can I extrapolate from this and say that J Street will never argue for a cutting of American aid to Israel, commensurate with the amount of money the Israeli government spends on settlements and roads to settlements and the like? In other words, would you ever go down the path of saying, we think that the best way to influence Israeli decision-making is to have the American government directly pressure Israel economically, or diplomatically?

JB: In four years, in the entire existence of J Street, we've made exactly this case: that you can't use boycotts, you can't threaten aid, you can't use these kinds of forms of negative pressure. I think you're right to extrapolate. It is all of a piece that these negative approaches to trying to get people to do something you want them to do, we've lumped them all together for four years and said, this doesn't work.

What you need to do, I often call it positive pressure instead of negative pressure. Positive pressure means actually giving people hope and something to believe in again. The biggest obstacle I see in the Israeli psyche at the moment is this sense that two states is never going to happen, that there's just no way peace is ever going to come. While 70% of Israelis want a two-state solution, 80% of them think it's never going to happen in their lifetime.

JG: How do you dislodge the settlers?

JB: The way that you overcome the mindset, which I think is the first step, is you actually present an agreement that, lo and behold, the world supports, and Palestinians would support, and you realize that, hey, we actually can get it. And that positive pressure to make that decision by creating a path to hope, a path to the future, gives you then the national political will and the national political consensus to make that very difficult move: to say to the settlers, it's time to come home.

JG: What, in your view, is keeping this process from continuing, or accelerating? I read Peter Beinart's book. He puts most of the blame on Israel. Do you agree?

JB: Well, I think there's more than enough blame to go around across the board. There's certainly been moments of opportunity when Palestinians didn't take an opportunity to come back with a proposal or to say yes. There have been moments when the Israelis have done things that weren't helpful. So there's more than enough blame, but I've always liked to focus on the future. And to say, "What can we now do to actually make progress?" rather than say, "Well, it's 90% this person's fault and 10% that person's fault." It's much more useful [to say] what actually could work.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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