J-Street President Calls Israel's
By: Moshe Ronen Translated from Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel).
Sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Tel Aviv, Jeremy Ben-Ami gazed out the window, watching the placid ocean. At precisely the same time, his wife, Alisa, and his children, Shira and Ari, were without power in their Washington home, hoping that hurricane Sandy will blow over. Electricity and phones were down and their only means of communication was texting.
About This Article
Although ostracized by right-wing circles and dubbed pro-Arab by the Knesset, lobby group J Street’s president and founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, whose father was an Irgun member, explains that everything he does is for Israel. Moshe Ronen interviewed one of the most influential Jews in the world just shy of the US and Israeli elections.Publisher: Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel)
The J spot
Author: Moshe Ronen
First Published: October 31, 2012
Posted on: November 1 2012
Translated by: Simon Pompan
Categories : Israel
President and founder of the Jewish lobby J Street Ben Ami is used to living between Israel and the US. He understands Hebrew but is deeply involved in American politics. Formerly President Bill Clinton’s advisor on domestic policy, he nevertheless knows Israeli politics through and through. While AIPAC invariably espouses right-wing positions, supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unreservedly, Ben-Ami’s J Street was founded four years ago as a pro-Israeli alternative — yet on the left.
“There are things that have to do with Israel that no political candidate in the United States can say anything about,” Ben-Ami told Yedioth Ahronot in an interview. “Everyone is convinced of the power of the Jewish vote and is afraid of it.”
Is the Jewish voter really that powerful?
“Jews make up 2% of the US population and 3% of the electorate. But according to polls, they make up 40% of the donors to the Democratic Party,” he said.
A far cry from Dad
Ben-Ami’s family has been linked with Israel for some 130 years. His grandfather served in the pre-state Jewish underground movements of the Irgun and Lehi and was a supporter of Zeev Jabotinski. But Jeremy was born in New York 50 years ago. He studied at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and then at New York University’s Law School. At the end of 90s, he immigrated to Israel and served as the communications director of the New Israel Fund. Later he returned to the US, canvassing for then-presidential hopeful Howard Dean — the incumbent chairman of the Democratic Party — who “blundered” by advocating a balanced policy vis-à-vis Israel.
“My father held very tough positions, but I don’t know where he stands today,” Ben-Ami acknowledges. “Look where the ‘princes’ of the right-wing Herut movement ended up — former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni and Minister Dan Meridor. Zionism has been my family’s centerpiece for 130 years. I haven’t steered off the road. What my father wanted was a safe home for the Jews in Israel, and what I want is a safe home for the Jews in Israel. But you have to make compromises.”
According to a survey in the US, only 3% of the Jews vote by the candidate’s attitude toward Israel, and only 7-10% counted Israel as one of the two most important issues for them.
“These are the most vocal 7% in American politics,” Ben-Ami says, sighing. “Israel has turned into a political soccer game, with the two parties kicking in order to score points. There is no intelligent discussion in the US on how to best serve Israel’s interests. In the Obama-Romney debate, Israel was mentioned 36 times, but never in the context of a plan on how to achieve peace or how to benefit Israel. Each one of them says ‘I’m a better friend of Israel,' but they don’t talk about substance. This doesn’t serve Israel.”
In that context, what is J Street’s objective?
“To be a voice to Americans who are deeply connected to Israel and believe that its future is in jeopardy unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. They’re disappointed that their voice isn’t being heard. The majority of American Jews are like-minded, voting for the Democratic Party and espousing liberal views. When asked what the most important issues to them are, they cite — in addition to Israel — women’s rights, the environment and same-sex marriage.”
You’re being accused of being leftists, perhaps radical leftists. While Netanyahu and other politicians regularly appear before AIPAC, you’re being ostracized.
“We’re centrists. The radical left in the US is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. Our positions are close to those of Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Dan Meridor; the moderate wings in the Likud, Kadima and Labor parties.”
Knesset Member Danny Danon called you pro-Palestinians.
“Danon lobbied Congress to adopt a resolution that will support annexing Judea and Samaria. In our opinion, this will lead to a one-state solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. At the moment, there is a slight Jewish majority in that state, and it won’t be before long — because of population growth — that there will be an Arab majority. This could no longer be a Jewish and democratic state. To my mind, Danon’s solution is the antithesis of Zionism.”
George Soros, your biggest donor, is not considered a staunch supporter of Israel. Your other donors are also considered pro-Arab.
“Danny Danon and the like call every leftist a pro-Arab. Anybody who supports the Geneva Initiative is deemed pro-Arab in their eyes.”
Obama will win
Jeremy’s father, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, left Israel after Prime Minister David Ben Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena. He was onboard that ship, having just returned to Israel from a fundraising campaign. He vowed to no longer live in Ben-Gurion’s state. Jeremy lived in Israel for a while, but returned to the US. He devoted 10 years of his life to domestic American politics, mainly in the area of social welfare. In 1992 he worked for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, and in the following four years he served on the White House staff, clocking hundreds of hours of consultations in the Oval Office.
“Obama will win the election by a small margin,” he ventures. “Note that the polls today are exactly as they were in the spring. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into both campaigns — and nothing has changed.”
Who will you vote for in the Israeli election?
“I’m not an Israeli citizen. What amazes me about the Israeli election is that the subject doesn’t even come up, although it is the most important to us — the relationship with the Palestinians. The world is fed up with hearing Israelis saying that there’s nothing to be done! For Americans who love Israel dearly, it’s important to us to tell you that the world finds Israel’s current policy unacceptable.”
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