A possible 'Obama Plan' and J Street's dilemma
04/20/2010 - 08:51
James Besser

I had several calls in the past few days expressing emotions ranging from anxiety to rage because of the Obama administration's rumored Middle East peace plan. And that made me wonder about how the other side – and J Street, in particular – will respond to the inevitable firestorm from mainstream pro-Israel groups when and if a plan is unveiled.

J Street's Hadar Susskind told me last week his group will likely support a new U.S. plan, although that will depend on the details.

J street will argue, I imagine with justification, that a majority of Jews will support an administration plan that is based on previous agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinians and is not “imposed,” but merely a starting point for renewed negotiations.

The problem is, it's a pretty silent majority. And the minority that thinks an “Obama Plan” is a really bad idea that will hurt Israel, and the minority of that minority that sees it as part of the President's secret plan to undermine a Jewish state he hates, are much louder, angrier and more focused on Israel as their sole political priority.

Vehement opponents may be relatively few in number, but if past controversies are any guide they will dominate the public debate because this issue will push everything else off their to-do lists; it will be time to go to the mattresses, man the lifeboats, hit the panic button  - pick your own allusion -  the moment the new plan is announced.

Likely supporters are probably a substantial majority, but if polls and many Jewish leaders and rabbis are to be believed, Israel is only a peripheral issue, at best, for many. Unlike the center-right core, this is a group that doesn't see a big U.S.-Israel rift, despite recent headlines, and doesn't see President Obama as hostile; at least that's the message in last week's American Jewish Committee survey, in which approval of President Obama's handling of U.S.-Israel relations was pretty much unchanged from the year before.

J Street opponents gleefully argue that the group's supporters just don't care about Israel; that's a deliberate distortion. The J Streeters I've talked to care deeply about the Jewish state and about the idea that only a negotiated peace agreement will provide the long-term security its citizens crave.

But I also don't see them seething with a sense of crisis and ready to leap to the barricades in the same way that those supporting the traditional pro-Israel groups are as friction between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government deepens.  The AIPAC base is heavily single issue in orientation, willing to put Israel - and AIPAC's position on key Mideast issues - above all their other political priorities. The J Street base is multi-issue, with a greater diversity of priorities and probably a greater resistance to party discipline.

In places where it counts – campaign money and the public debate – pro-Israel administration opponents will dominate because they will be louder, angrier and more narrowly focused. They will portray any support for an Obama plan – even if the plan is presented simply as a starting point for new negotiations, and even if it reflects the positions of recent Israeli governments - as bad for Israel, and possibly an expression of hostility to the Jewish state.  Politicians who support it risk being called anti-Israel. Every time an official here criticizes an Israeli action, you'll hear the words “blood libel.”

What remains to be seen: can J Street and its supporters overcome the passion and activism gap? Can they develop a strategy for supporting administration policy in a political climate in which, increasingly, it's the shouters who dominate the debate? Can they provide sufficient political cover for politicians who want to support the administration but fear they'll be branded anti-Israel if they do? It won't be enough to argue the issues; they'll have to find ways to response to the intense emotions the other side will bring to bear.

And it won't be enough to assert that they represent majority opinion in the Jewish community, even if that's true. 

Making things harder for J Street is the reality that conditions are hardly favorable for any new peace effort, with the leaders on both sides paying lip service to the need to negotiate but fearing any forward movement that will require them to make politically risky decisions.  J Street will have no choice but to support an Obama administration plan if it unfolds as most observers expect, but my guess is that under present circumstances, some J Street leaders are probably secretly hoping it doesn't happen.

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