J Street Failure Reflected at Conference (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Omri Ceren 03/23/12)
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J Street is holding their annual policy conference this weekend, and
the group duly requested speakers from the White House and the
Israeli embassy in Washington DC. The results are unspinnable. The
Israelis let J Street cool its heels until this week before
dispatching deputy chief of mission Barukh Binah. Binah recently
concluded a stint in Jerusalem as a Foreign Ministry deputy director-
general, in which capacity he publicly castigated J Street for
dishonestly manufacturing an anti-Israel publicity stunt, then
building an entire media campaign around the stunt, then fabricating
an Israeli apology related to the stunt. Sending him to be the
embassy’s speaker was not the world’s most subtle move. The White
House’s announcement of its surrogate, the vice president’s national
security adviser Tony Blinken, left Ben-Ami bitterly complaining that
the choice was a snub. He’s right. Blinken, for all that he is an
experienced hand, is several rungs below U.S. National Security
Adviser Jim Jones, who appeared at the first J Street conference and
left J Street boosters musing about the group’s potential power.
J Street has gone from fantasies of being the anti-AIPAC to
complaining publicly about its diminished influence. The spiral was a
function of many things, but mostly of the group aggressively pushing
counterproductive, failed, and toxic policies in Israel, in Congress,
and in the media.
Israelis were always skeptical of J Street, even as the group was
embraced by the Obama White House as the President’s anti-Israel
enabler. Israeli embassy officials declared that J Street was
damaging Israel, was “a unique problem,” and was “fooling around”
with Israeli lives. When J Street’s founder and president Jeremy Ben-
Ami publicly insisted upon Ambassador Oren’s presence at the group’s
first conference he was rebuffed, leading Ben-Ami’s White House
allies to attack Israel over the snub in Israeli media outlets
(reports from the conference justified Israeli skepticism). Last year
Israel’s minister for public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs flatly
called J Street anti-Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t
take meetings with the group’s delegations.
In the meantime J Street’s public campaigns – many implemented with
tone-deafness and some with frankly shocking incompetence – eroded
its Congressional support.
Its embrace of Richard Goldstone was followed by a fumbled cover-up.
Its support of anti-Israel U.N. campaigns triggered a fistfight with
Congressional allies. Its defense of anti-Semitic rhetoric is seeping
in this weekend’s conference. Its coordination with pro-Iran lobbies
has been unreal. Its stance on Cast Lead angered Israeli victims’
J Street officials got caught misleading reporters on overseas Arab
and Muslim funding and then launched a clumsy spin campaign. Then
they got caught misleading other reporters about Soros funding and
launched another clumsy spin campaign. When the group did its
fundraising in public it was for yet another effort to pressure Obama
into pressuring Israel.
On a smaller scale J Street launched campaigns to defend anti-Israel
media campaigns and anti-Israel art and anti-Israel artists. Its PR
flak defended Mary Robinson. It brought into the fold an apologist
for the Muslim students who went after Ambassador Oren at UC Irvine.
A J Street delegation held meetings with Palestinian diplomats in
Ramallah on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day over Israeli objections
and then Ben-Ami bragged about the trip in the Jerusalem Post. One of
their board members met with Hamas.
Unsurprisingly the group has become toxic in Congress. Associating
with J Street costs votes and chills relationships.
As a small example: last year some House Republicans threatened to
defund the Palestinian Authority. The move was opposed with various
degrees of publicity by Democrats, the White House, and Israeli Prime
Minister Netanyahu. J Street ostentatiously launched a three-month
public campaign to push back, which culminated in 44 Democratic
signatures on a letter. 44 is 10 fewer Democrats than J Street
secured for far more controversial 2010 letter calling on Obama to
pressure Israel on the Gaza siege, which J Street had to lobby for by
This time J Street was too weak to directly push on an open door in
Congress. The White House and its political liaisons undoubtedly
noted as much.
J Street and other anti-Israel Jewish groups will never totally
collapse. They will always have a constituency, and that constituency
will always pretend that they’re on the cusp of influencing the
policy discussion. But everyone else seems to be tired of pretending
that J Street is anything but a particularly elegant case study of
how fringe progressive collapses under its own weight.
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