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

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.

I put a lot of blame on a focus on process. You know, how do we get the parties back to the table, how do we get direct talks going again, where are we going to meet, who's going to be in the room. Those kinds of process questions become an end in and of themselves, and you lose sight of the end result: the outcome that you're trying to reach. The problem with Oslo was it laid out a process without ever telling you what the end result is going to be. What does that Palestinian state look like? What does the border look like? What are the security arrangements? Let's actually skip over the three to five years of process and talks, because we don't need them--because we already know what the end result looks like. Let's put that deal on the table and force the political decision on both sides--both the Palestinians and the Israeli political world--to decide if they are really ready to say yes to a realistic resolution to this conflict.

JG: Do you want President Obama, in his second term, if he has one, to lay out the vision for final status, and then invite both parties to negotiate based on that vision?

JB: Yes. And it would be not just President Obama alone. I think he's been very adept at building larger international coalitions, and I think the Quartet is a starting point. But it doesn't necessarily define the be all and end all of what you would need to do. You'd want to bring in some Arab states, you'd probably want to expand a little bit into some of the other actors that are relevant to the Middle East beyond the Quartet. Think about a new approach to this, that has international backing--a broad base of international backing--and have the president take the basic outlines that were in the Clinton parameters and Geneva and all the rest of the model plans that are out there, get international backing for them, and go to Ramallah, go to Jerusalem, at the beginning of the second term. I would say this to a Republican president, too. Whoever is going to be the next president. If they want to get this done, the way to do it is not to find a new envoy and start a whole new round of talks. the way to do it is to lay out the basic checklist of the items that we know have to be part of this, and see if the sides are serious or not.

JG: Come back to Peter  a little bit, because the criticism that I have of the book, the criticism that other people have of the book, is that it seems to blame Israelis and the American Jewish establishment for the impasse. It doesn't seem to me to be an effective way of convincing the mainstream of American Jewry to move toward a position closer to your position. It's kind of in the same ballpark as negative pressure. But what is it that you like about the book?

JB: I didn't say that I liked the book. I said that I liked his analysis in the op-ed of what the problem is.

JG: No, but he's the troubadour of your movement, your description.

JB: Right, that was before. I'm just saying his article from two years ago in The New York Review of Books, which laid out the failure of the American Jewish establishment and this notion that in order to be part of the Zionist movement you have to check your liberal values at the door: now that framework, I think, speaks deeply not just to the young people at J Street but to a lot of people at J Street who have just felt that they don't have a route into the pro-Israel world if they don't just sign off on everything the government of Israel does and everything that the mainstream groups stand for.

In calling that out and saying that that's a failure, and really a part of the reason that people are distancing themselves from Israel and from the Jewish community, I think that's what I was describing when I say he's the troubadour of our movement -- in laying out that challenge and that problem and then framing the problem the way that he did. I think that's where his vision is, that you can create a home for liberal and progressive Zionists who want a Jewish home, want a Jewish nation, and at the same time want to be able to advocate for what they believe are the values that they were raised on and our fundamental Jewish values. Again, squaring that difficult challenge is something that he says can be done. And I think again that's what J Street is trying to do, is to find a way to create that home for progressive and liberal Zionism.

JG: Is J Street not more popular than it is because people have ascribed to it a negative message? Or because the American Jewish establishment makes it hard for you to penetrate the mainstream?

JB: Probably the reticence and the reluctance of people to embrace what we're saying has multiple roots. One is that I think people are not used to the notion that you can, in fact, have more than one public voice and public opinion on these issues. Go back generations and our community, the Jewish community, was very deeply set on the notion of unity, and that as a minority, and as a group that didn't have much power and had been suffering discrimination and anti-Semitism, we really needed to make sure that we presented a public face to the world that was unified. And that mindset from two or three generations ago, I think, does still permeate a little bit.

I think one of the things that makes people uncomfortable with J Street is that we're saying we've sort of moved beyond that. That we as American Jews are established enough in this country, we're comfortable enough, we don't have to act in that way anymore. That it actually is just fine for members of Congress to know that in fact there's a disagreement in the Jewish community over the best way to express our love of Israel. And that that's okay, and that it actually makes us stronger.

I think that's an uncomfortable notion, and I think that gives some people pause. I also think that there are plenty of people who have been out there trying to create a bad impression of J Street by spreading either lies or falsifications or other rumors, and that hasn't helped. There's a real readiness in our community at times to take an email filled with 20 supposed facts and forward it on to 40 people before they check whether anything in it was true. I think that also fed some of this over the last few years. You see it with the emails about Obama, you see it with the emails about other topics that spread like wildfire in the Jewish community. There's a few different reasons why, I think. It's an uphill battle, but we are climbing step by step up the hill. There's no question that it's a steep one.

JG:  You're going to go for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations  next year, right?

JB: As I understand the rules, one can apply for membership in the Conference after being in existence for five years. So that comes up next year.

JG: So what you're basically waiting for is to see if they recognize your right to exist.

JB:  (laughs) Right.

JG: Are you going to apply?

JB: We are going to apply, and we will apply after the five years are up.

JG: Right. And what do you expect will happen?

JB: I would hope that we will be welcomed and admitted as a member of the Conference.

JG: We've talked about this before, but there is this perception--and I don't think this is a line only invented by J Street detractors--that J Street loves Israel so much it can't find a nice word to say about it. You've heard that criticism before. Do you think that you have failed to communicate the pro-Israel part of your message adequately? Or not even the pro-Israel in the political sense, but "this is why we believe in a Jewish state" message. I'm wondering if that's something that you've thought about.

JB: It's certainly the less interesting piece for people to talk about and write about, in that a group of American Jews sitting around talking about how much they love Israel would make for less interesting copy, but when that group turns around and says something critical, that's the man bites dog part of the story. So I think a lot of our activities, a lot of our community session, our trips to Israel -- there's a lot of discussion and a lot of study and a lot of in-depth feeling of trying to really understand Israel and express our hopes and our dreams and the roots of our connection. I think that's very much a part of what we do, but I don't think it's as interesting publicly, so I think it gets a lot less attention. We constantly need to do the best job we can to express how deeply everybody who is involved in J Street is committed to the notion that the Jewish people have the right to a state of their own, and to defend themselves, and to be part of the community of nations. It's a very, very deep-seated feeling that all of us have that are involved in J Street.

JG: Young American Jews used to feel unalloyed pride about Israel. Do you think that many people are embarrassed by Israel now?

JB: Well, I don't think that it's anything to do with the country or the people. I think that there are issues that a lot of people have with the policies that the state and the government follow.

JG: So is that a yes?

JB: No, but it's not in Israel. I think that there's a really important distinction. I think there's a deep --

JG: But people don't walk around thinking to themselves, Boy, I'm really disappointed in the foreign minister of Israel. They think, I'm really embarrassed by the thing Israel did. Right? I mean, it's hard to disaggregate.

JB: But I think people do draw a distinction. It's like in the United States, when you are deeply disappointed in a particular president: If you're a Democrat and you're disappointed in George W. Bush and what's happened in the Republican-led Congress, or you're a Republican and you're not thrilled with Obama, everybody says, "But I love this country. I love the United States and I believe so deeply in it. And that's why I'm fighting for [fill in the blank]." .

JG: There are a lot of people on the far left of the Jewish spectrum who argue that Zionism and liberalism are incompatible. I think one of the things that Peter is trying to do--in my  opinion, in a flawed way -- is merge the two again. Do you think it's hopeless? You look at the population of Israel and you see how it votes, you see the coalition, you don't see many trends that suggest that Haaretz readers are going to take over the country anytime soon. Do you think we're just on a trajectory away from the idea that you can be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time?

JB: I don't, and that's kind of why I said that Peter is the troubadour of our movement. Because that's exactly what we're trying to do, is to build a movement that is grounded in exactly the merging of those two things, that you really can be both. I look at the 450,000 people who took to the streets last summer--1/10th, almost, of all Israeli Jews, on the streets last summer fighting for social and economic justice --

JG: Yeah, but that wasn't an issue related to the peace process or compromise with the Palestinians.

JB: No, but it's related to the values on which the country is founded. There's a vision of the country that was intended to be a place with opportunity for all, and equality, and rooted in the lessons that we learned from the injustices and oppression of living in other people's lands. I feel the social and economic justice movement in Israel is deeply grounded in exactly those values, and trying to return the country in a very fundamental way to its roots. I don't think it's lost. I think that it's there.

You look at the tremendous groups that are working on a whole range of civil society issues, whether they're fighting for religious pluralism, whether they're fighting for women's rights, gay rights, economic justice, there's so much activity going on in Israel in the NGO sector and through activism. And it parallels exactly what's going on in the Jewish community in this country, and the great work of groups like Jewish Funds for Justice and the American Jewish World Service, giving expression of those values through the work people are doing. I think it is there. And it's a fight! There is a fight to be had over what is the nature of our people and what's the nature of the country that represents our people. But by no means is that fight anywhere near lost or over.

JG: We expect J Street to condemn settler violence, or provocative settlement building, or the power of the religious right parties in Israel. But another thing that we don't seem to hear from J Street enough is where the left side of the framework is. I understand where you go on the right, but it's always this concern--look, some of it is manufactured by people who don't like your general outlook, but some of it is real. What is "too left" for J Street?  What sort of expression of criticism is too far to the left, from your perspective?

JB: We established at the beginning of the interview some of the tactical things that are too far. We don't support, obviously, BDSbut also Peter's conception of  "Zionist BDS," that that is either advisable, doable, or workable.

JG: Do you think that this would put you on a slippery slope toward full BDS?

JB: I think it's very hard to make a clear line between what is "settlement business" and what is not. So many businesses do business on both sides of the Green Line. Very few things are simply, purely done on the other side of the Green Line.

JG: And isn't it, of course, the Israeli government that subsidizes factory-building in settlements that then create products that are sold?

JB: Right.

JG: So then why are you blaming the factory? Shouldn't you be blaming the guy who gave you the money to build the factory, which in this case is the Israeli government?

JB: The same issue comes up with divestment. Because if you divest from a company that produces a military product that is used in the occupation, that same company is probably producing a product that helps defend Israel from, let's say, rockets. So if you're saying you shouldn't be supporting a truck company or a boot manufacturer, is that the boots of the soldiers who are going to defend Israel itself? It is a slippery slope and very hard to draw that line.

JG: Do you think Beinart's idea is going to catch on?

JB: I think there are a lot of people in the progressive part of the pro-Israel community who are personally, deeply bothered by the notion that we would doing anything that helps to perpetuate this occupation. So I think on a personal level, people do, when they find out that a product or a wine or whatever it is comes from the West Bank, then personally I think people will consider this.

JG:  I don't think this is going to gain traction in the American Jewish community. Tell me I'm wrong.

JB: No, I don't think so either. I think people are flailing about right now because there is nothing serious happening in the realm where it really matters -- the realm that really matters is the political side of things. There is no movement, whether it's from here out of fright or out of stasis on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, there's just no movement. And people are deeply frustrated. They sense that this is slipping away, that we're headed toward a one-state nightmare, and people are frustrated. They say, "What can I do?" And it isn't enough to just come to Washington and lobby--although it's very, very important that people come. We're having our conference this weekend and we'll have 2,500 people, and we'll be larger, louder, and bigger than we were last year. And next year we'll be bigger than this year. You know, we'll keep on growing and we'll make this movement heard. But people are frustrated that time is of the essence and it's slipping away. And I can understand the frustration. It's very, very urgent that political leadership step forward and fill the vacuum, and that's what J Street is trying to push.

JG: Do you sense any movement on this whatsoever?

JB: Not for seven months. Not until election day. But my hope is -- I would say you can't really afford to take this election cycle off. But the reality is that we're in a very, very difficult political environment and I think in a second term or in a new president's first term, they have got to take another crack at this.

(Thanks to Sarah Yager for transcribing the interview)