J Street conference confronts America’s ‘blank check’ to Israel

By making U.S. aid to Israel the main theme of its 2019 conference, J Street is challenging bipartisan support for Israel ahead of 2020.

WASHINGTON — In the shadow of the World Series, the reported killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh, 4,000 people gathered in the U.S. capital for J Street’s eighth annual conference, titled “Rise to the Moment.”

In some ways, J Street did just that. The conference was dominated by the message that the U.S. government should no longer provide — as the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, put it — a “blank check” to Israel. “It is important for the U.S. to take a very close look at whether or not our money should be going for activities that make it impossible to get to a two-state solution,” Ben-Ami told +972. He specified actions such as Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes, and settlement expansion.

The five candidates for the Democratic party nomination who appeared at the conference — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, Michael Bennet, and Bernie Sanders — all gave interviews with Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor, hosts of Pod Save the World, who pushed the candidates to address the question of leveraging U.S. aid to Israel. Sanders, a conference favorite who received by far the most exuberant applause when he came on stage, was the only one to call explicitly for conditioning and even redirecting aid; the Vermont senator suggested some of the $3.8 billion Israel receives annually should be redirected toward alleviating conditions in Gaza, which he described as “inhumane, unacceptable and unsustainable.”

The J Street conference marked a significant shift in the discourse around the U.S.-Israel relationship in general, and J Street’s role in particular. J Street has, since its founding in 2007, worked with obstinate determination for a U.S. brokered two-state solution; until this year, however, it never suggested or even broached the issue of setting conditions for financial and military aid to Israel. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground deteriorated significantly over the past decade, with expanding settlements, three Israeli military assaults on Gaza, and the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law. Netanyahu, who has dominated the Israeli political landscape for almost as long as J Street has been around, shifted from paying lip service to the two-state solution in 2009 to espousing explicitly anti-democratic, anti-Arab policies.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the organization’s 2019 national conference, October 28, 2019. (J Street)

Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump has simultaneously emboldened the Israeli right, and created room for the left to voice sharper criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel. By making aid the central theme of the conference, J Street is helping to legitimize the issue as the starting point for any Democratic conversation on what U.S. foreign policy toward Israel should look like in 2021. “There’s no question the majority of Democrats are in the same place as J Street. The ‘Israel right or wrong playbook’ is dead,” Ben-Ami said.

But this shift in rhetoric has yet to be translated into concrete legislative actions. Neither J Street nor Sanders has lent support to the only bill in Congress that would actually hold Israel accountable for how it spends American funding: House Bill 2407, introduced in May by Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, seeks to prohibit the transfer of U.S. funds for use by the IDF in its military detention of Palestinian children. The bill applies to the detention of minors in every country around the world; it is an amendment to the Leahy Law, which bars the U.S. government — at the discretion of the State Department — from providing funds to foreign security forces where there is “credible information implicating that unit in the commission of a gross violation of human rights.” McCollum’s bill seeks to add the systematic maltreatment of minors to the classification of gross human rights violations. Israel regularly detains and mistreats Palestinian children, as documented thoroughly by Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations and reported on extensively by +972 Magazine.

“Watching as rhetoric on conditioning assistance became the central topic at the conference, my takeaway was that a conscious effort was being made to bring an internal division onto the public stage, to illustrate to some obstinate board members where things are headed,” said Brad Parker, senior adviser for policy and advocacy at Defense for Children International – Palestine. According to Parker, J Street said in May that it would support the bill before the end of the current congressional session, but later expressed some concerns regarding the wording of the bill.

Ben-Ami told +972 that J Street does support “the concept that all aid should be in line with the Leahy Law.”

Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president of government affairs, said the organization was still discussing the matter. “We simply don’t know if it would function to significantly reduce, if not nearly zero out, U.S. security assistance to Israel, which we support.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Gili Getz)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Gili Getz)

The bill does not, in fact, prescribe withholding a single dollar of U.S. assistance, but rather advocates redirecting the funds so that none of it is spent on the incarceration of children. It states, “no funds authorized to be appropriated for assistance to a foreign country may be used to support the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of children in violation of international humanitarian law.” Rep. McCollum confirmed to +972 that H.R. 2407 “does not withhold U.S. foreign assistance to Israel” and added that she “stands by the language.”

During a breakout session on Israel’s role in the 2020 election, American Jewish writer Peter Beinart described support for McCollum’s bill as “a no brainer.” It is no longer enough, he said, merely to express support for a two-state solution, explaining that calling for an end to settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state while continuing to give Israel aid with no strings attached is incoherent. “You don’t have to have a PhD to apply those principles to a situation where Palestinians have fewer rights in the West Bank than a black person in Mississippi in 1953,” Beinart said. “The conversation that’s coming in the Democratic party — and I think quickly — is a conversation about American complicity and American money.”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has endorsed the McCollum bill along with the rest of “The Squad,” raised the issue of aid to Israel at the beginning of the year. As a result of her tweets and public statements about American funding having ensured monolithic and outsize support for Israel, Omar was attacked and labeled an anti-Semite (she apologized for invoking what many saw as anti-Semitic tropes, insisting she had not meant to cause offense). Now, J Street, Sanders and Beinart are all raising the same issue. Sanders, in response to a question from Ben Rhodes about how to deal effectively with criticism of Israel and its conflation with anti-Semitism, said “I think being Jewish may be helpful in that regard. It’s going to be hard for anybody to call me — whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler and who spent time in Israel — an anti-Semite.”

Public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin speaks at the 2019 J Street National Conference, October 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)
Public opinion expert and +972 writer Dahlia Scheindlin speaks at the 2019 J Street national conference, October 28, 2019. (J Street)

Omar, who was a guest at J Street’s gala event on Monday night along with dozens of other Congress members, told +972, “As in any diplomatic relationship, we must ensure our allies are complying with international law, respecting human rights and helping to achieve peace. Military aid is one of the most important levers we have.” She pointed out that presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both used aid to Israel as leverage. “I believe the recent speed and growth of human rights violations is a result of our unwillingness to hold recent Israeli administrations accountable for steps that undermine peace. If we are serious about peace, we need to be serious about the missed opportunities — and do everything we can to learn from our mistakes,” she said.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush briefly withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel as a punitive measure for settlement expansion, and his son threatened do to the same as president in 2003 over the same exact issue. President Obama, on the other hand, signed a Memo of Understanding that guaranteed Israel a 10-year aid package of $38 billion. It was the largest aid package in American history, and it came with no strings attached regarding settlements or Palestinian rights. Now, the Democratic Party is pushing back against Obama’s staunchly “pro-Israel” decision to give Israel carte blanche with American money.

Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Bernie Sanders, told +972, “The money is a political symbol. Starting a conversation about withholding that aid is also a political symbol. The goal is not to get to that point; but if we do, we are thinking through, as many are, what are the actual steps we will take.” Duss did not specify how Sanders would go about conditioning aid, emphasizing instead the importance of normalizing the idea that American tax-payer dollars will not support violations of human rights.

J Street is a single-issue liberal Zionist advocacy group with a self-imposed mandate to lobby for a two-state solution. In its own language, it wants to ensure that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state living in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state. It took the organization more than a decade to reach the point of raising the question of leveraging aid for political concessions; the trigger was Netanyahu’s 2019 campaign promise to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank ahead of the April election. Indeed, the “threat of annexation” loomed large in the conference’s messaging. This, like J Street’s persistent commitment to a two-state solution despite its disappearance from the discourse in Israel, is out of touch with the reality on the ground. As +972 writer and public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin pointed out in a breakout session, Israel has, through its settlement enterprise, already annexed de facto much of the occupied Palestinian territories. “Settlement expansion is annexation happening right before our eyes,” she said.

Attendees at the 2019 J Street National Conference raise posters of the organization's new campaign urging the Democratic Party to formally oppose Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, October 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)
Attendees of the 2019 J Street national conference raise posters of the organization’s new campaign urging the Democratic Party to formally oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, October 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

J Street has provided a big tent in which the issue of U.S. aid to Israel can be debated, but its current legislative work is largely focused on triage for the damage inflicted since Trump took office. J Street boasts that it has garnered over 190 sponsors for H.R. 326 opposing annexation and reaffirming the call for a two-state solution, but this is a largely symbolic resolution. Notably, it does not even include a condemnation of the occupation. The Democratic Party platform has yet to include a call to end the occupation; this year marks the first time J Street has made that a central campaign push as part of J Street U’s work with students on campuses.

At the 2019 conference, it became apparent that the progressive flanks of J Street and the Democratic Party are pulling the organization as a whole to the left. This is illustrated by the first-ever appearance of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who is a regular at AIPAC and who supports anti-BDS legislation. J Street is now politically relevant, proving that it is a much-needed alternative to AIPAC. In their keynote speeches at the conference gala, both Schumer and Pelosi repeated the importance of bipartisan support for Israel, something of a mantra in Washington. Not a single Republican representative attended the conference, although organizers said they invited several. In other words, support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue — and that’s alright. For the GOP, neither the occupation nor the Palestinians really exist. For the Democrats, Palestinian rights are increasingly an integral part of a progressive agenda. Looking ahead to 2020 the question is: now that J Street is starting to talk the talk, will it walk the walk?

Correction: This article was updated with the correct reference to House Bill 2407, and to reflect that Palestinian as well as Israeli organizations document Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian children. At J Street’s gala event, there were dozens, not a dozen, Congress members.