J Street’s opposition to Palestinian UN bid is a smart move

My colleague Noam heavily castigated J Street’s announcement that it would oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in a few weeks. He qualified this by saying that he isn’t entirely convinced of the statehood plan itself; but saw political and moral failings in J Street’s position nonetheless.

I, on the other hand, am not convinced of J Street’s opposition, but I respect the logic and the legitimacy of the approach. My main reservations are emotional: the Palestinians need and deserve a state, with all the problems it will face, and I want the world to be swept along by this historic reality; I also think it is the best possible thing for Israel. Many of us among the Israeli left have come to depend on J Street to make that case in Washington and in the American Jewish community, to crack the conspiracy of silence that has effectively BDS’d the Jewish and Israeli left for decades. J Street has made tremendous strides in that direction and it’s been a heady ride.

But when I saw Jeremy Ben Ami on a recent visit to Israel, he wasn’t heady – he looked rather shaken. J Street had just called on the Obama administration not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction – not even asking for it to support the resolution, which was consistent with Obama’s own policy. The response was a vicious outpouring of rage. Political, financial and emotional wrath was heaped on J Street and even Rabbi David Saperstein, who opened J Street’s 2011 conference, felt it was a strategic blunder.

We on the Israeli left forget the painfully irrational forces acting on American Jewry and Washington attitudes towards Israel.  The stale narrative of Israel for many of them has long become more important than reality on the ground; that narrative reads like a Tarzan conversation: “Palestinian state – you bad. Israel – you good. UN, you bad.” This is the reality J Street faces, and we in Israel do not always fully appreciate how the organization must fight tooth and nail against every charge of “de-legitimization” at almost every step.

J Street had two options for an organizational identity. It could be a fearless boundary-pusher. Without immediate political goals, and therefore no fear of political retribution, it could have spoken its mind with no holds barred, adding one more voice to the numerous and noble organizations out there calling for a better way (i.e., supporting a negotiated two-state solution).

The other option was to go for immediate, direct political impact. Like all nationally influential leaders, parties or organizations, that means moving toward the center to build broader coalitions among constituents and gain strategic leverage for future bold moves. President Obama has done exactly this, and beyond health care, many of us are still waiting for his future bold moves.

So far, J Street has never hid the fact that it views itself in the latter role; and there is no question that it has also stretched the boundaries of the American-Jewish dialogue – probably more effectively than all those earlier groups. I may share Noam’s disappointment emotionally; but I wouldn’t dare question J Street’s profound understanding of the occult science of Washington and American Jewry, which is vastly deeper than mine or most Israelis’.

Just as I think it is unhelpful for the American progressive/left community to automatically beat up Obama for not going further (although I appreciate the pluralism of ideas and critique), I think Noam is mistaken when he writes:

it’s even bad politics, because it won’t win J Street any new supporters but it would make people respect the organization less.”

But when my folks, good New York hyper-liberal hyper-intellectuals tell me that their good New York hyper-liberal, hyper-intellectual friends just write off J Street as garden-variety Israel bashers, I must flat-out disagree with Noam’s conjecture that the move won’t win new supporters.

Will it make people respect the organization less? As a political strategist, I’m impressed that J Street has a strategy – which is not synonymous with lack of integrity. The group’s statement laid down clear criteria for judging policy (advancing peace, improving conditions on the ground, and enhance security). It set a clear human rights red line by stating that the Administration must not cut off aid to Palestinians, showing that the Palestinians ought not to be punished for failed international diplomacy as Noam implies. The statement fully legitimized non-violent, diplomatic efforts of the Palestinians, effectively endorsing the legitimacy of other non-violent campaigns.

Finally, there was the following sentence:

J Street remains dismayed at the track record of bias against Israel in the General Assembly and in other UN bodies and agencies.”

This does something the Israeli left tends to be too cowardly to do: it acknowledges where there are genuine flaws in the approach to Israel – which are so crudely, but effectively, exploited by the right. Such acknowledgments can go a long way towards assuring people who agree with J Street in principle but loathe knee-jerk anti-Israelism – which, unfortunately, does exist. It’s time to acknowledge that, and it may free up those people so they can start listening.

Strategy counts. Over the last decade, the Israeli left has been right more often than it has been smart, to translate a Hebrew phrase. We are now suffering a profound loss of trust in Israeli society.

My surveys repeatedly show that roughly half the Jewish population agrees with left-leaning views on the conflict, but only roughly 15% are willing to call themselves left. At present left-identified groups are busy fighting their way out of an image hole, instead of pushing their content.

Maybe J Street will avoid that trap. Maybe it’s we, the Israeli left, who have something to learn from them.