(November 11, 2021 / JNS) In its 15 years of existence, the left-wing lobby J Street has won many public-relations victories and almost none when it came to policy. Its impact in Washington has, for the most part, been more symbolic than real. Indeed, it could be argued that its main achievement was to live rent-free in the heads of centrist and right-wing groups that work for Israel rather than against it, as J Street does, and to inspire anger that was often disproportionate to its lack of influence on Capitol Hill as well as in Jerusalem. Since it advocates policies towards the Palestinians and Iran that are out of touch with the beliefs of the vast majority of Israelis, it could be argued that it was largely irrelevant to the realities of the Middle East, even if it could always count on favorable coverage in publications like The New York Times.
The formation of an Israeli government that included marginal left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz, which agree with J Street’s stands, had everything to do with the desire of a majority of Israelis to rid themselves of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and nothing to do with policy. But it did represent a major opening for J Street, and the organization has taken full advantage of the situation. The meetings of congressional delegations organized by the group this week with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were an important milestone in its long-running effort to elbow its way into the conversation as a rival to the far larger and vastly more influential AIPAC.
After so many years of being snubbed by Netanyahu, in addition to Israeli ambassadors to the United States during this period, its ability to pull off something that would be considered merely routine by AIPAC or any number of other pro-Israel organizations should not be dismissed as entirely meaningless.
While both Bennett and Lapid had their own motives for agreeing to the meetings, it’s impossible to pretend that J Street hasn’t been given a stamp of legitimacy that it was heretofore denied. One question that this raises is what, if anything, this will mean for the group’s ability to influence American policy regarding Israel. But just as, if not more important, is what this will mean for the debate going among Democrats about their attitude towards the Jewish state in which an increasingly loud left-wing faction is seeking to drive both the party and the United States away from the alliance.
Both Bennett and Lapid believe that it is both Israel’s interests and that of their ramshackle alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties that replaced Netanyahu to make nice with the Biden administration.
It is always in the interest of Israel to stay as close as possible to its sole superpower ally. Since President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team—composed largely of alumni from the Obama administration—despise Netanyahu and will do just about anything to keep him from winning back power, that gives Bennett and Lapid some leverage with Washington. But to hold onto that goodwill, they think they must do what they can to restore good relations with the Democratic Party. That is something that neither Netanyahu nor most Israelis have shown much interest in since Obama’s appeasement of Iran and his efforts to pressure Jerusalem into making concessions to the Palestinians.
Former President Donald Trump’s tilt towards Israel on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Palestinians and efforts to forge normalization agreements with Arab nations that Obama’s administration disdained only reinforced the impression that Israel saw its interests as aligned with that of the Republicans and not the Democrats. The influence of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic left-wingers such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and the unwillingness of either Biden or his party to rebuke these figures, also proved telling. That Biden has condoned, rather than repudiated, progressive activists who embrace intersectional ideology that demonizes Israel and gives a permission slip to anti-Semitism in the name of “anti-racism” only solidifies the notion that Democrats are moving away from the Jewish state.
So with the Democrats back in power, a bit of a course correction from Israel is probably wise. Yet in doing a favor for J Street, it’s not clear that the government will gain much credit for the move from Biden. Nor can they be sure that J Street will use that boost to strengthen pro-Israel voices on the left rather than undermine them.
J Street’s role has always been to serve as a cheering section for the policies that Obama pursued, even if it put them at odds with most Israelis. In recent years, it has encountered difficulties navigating a changing political landscape in which its “pro-Israel and pro-peace” mantra was increasingly out of touch with a Democratic base that had little use for Zionism, even if Israel were to withdraw, as J Street advocates, to 1967 lines. In the eyes of most members of “The Squad” and others who have been influenced by intersectionality and critical race theory to view all of Israel, and not just the West Bank, as “occupied” illegally by the Jews. That means J Street’s version of “liberal Zionism” has gone out of fashion on the left as its campus chapters often make common cause with anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voices for Peace or the Students for Justice in Palestine hate group.
It’s still possible for J Street to carve out some space among Democrats who are harshly critical of just about everything Israel does—as is the lobby—without going over the line into opposing its existence. So its ability to organize a trip with liberal Democratic House members and then get them meetings with the leaders of Israel’s government boosted its credibility.
In theory, that ought to enable it to help fight back against more woke factions on the left who are openly anti-Zionist, not to mention anti-Semitic. And if all that costs Bennett and Lapid is the time it takes to meet with a few visiting members of Congress (to clarify, Lapid met with J Street figures as well as the members of Congress, while Bennett only sat down with the politicians), then it can be defended as a gesture that does little harm and might even do some good.
But if there’s anything we’ve learned about J Street over the years, it is that rather than seeking to establish ground on the left to fight for Israel, its goal is to aid those seeking to pressure and undermine the Jewish state, as well as the ability to defend itself. Whatever strength it derives from Israel’s gestures will only be used to bolster administration efforts to break down the government’s resistance to Biden’s efforts to walk back Trump’s policies. That includes their support for further appeasement of Iran and efforts to chip away at Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem with the opening of a consulate to the Palestinians there.
That means that rather than helping to rally the remaining pro-Israel forces within the Democratic Party to resist the far-left “Squad”—including one of its new members, Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who was on the J Street trip—and the rest of the intersectional crowd, J Street will continue in its role as a leading Jewish apologist for anti-Israel policies.
The question of which American politicians get meetings with their prime minister and foreign minister are understandably of little interest to most Israelis. But they should understand that by giving some crucial help to a group that is likely to accelerate the drift of Democrats away from Israel rather than reverse it, Bennett and Lapid have made a mistake with serious consequences for their country’s diminishing ability to muster bipartisan support in the United States.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_Tobin.
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