In January 2009, flushed with the success of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, many on the left assumed that the new left-wing lobby J Street would soon be a major force in Washington. They thought that even if it did not replace AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel, it would, at the very least, be a potent rival that would help the new administration’s policy of pressure on the Jewish state survive criticism from the right.
But as J Street’s supporters gather for their second annual conference March 24-27 in Washington, they face a very different political environment than their founders may have envisioned.
Though the group’s identity is still bound up with the fortunes of President Obama, he has largely abandoned them.
J Street loyally backed Obama in every one of his spats with the Israeli government in the last three years. J Street cheered every attempt by the administration to hammer the Israelis on settlements, borders and Jerusalem.
Yet with his mind focused on his re-election fight and chastened by the way the Palestinians have rebuffed his efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction, Obama dropped virtually all mention of J Street’s issues when he spoke to the conference held by AIPAC earlier this month.
Instead, the president concentrated on currying favor with the mainstream group that he knows represents the views of most pro-Israel voters. There was no way of interpreting his decision to opt for an election year charm offensive aimed at those who disagreed with J Street other than as a harsh rebuff to the group’s hopes for influence.
J Street has suffered a similar fate on Capitol Hill where even most liberal Democrats don’t give it the time of day. Its knee-jerk reflex to criticize Israeli measures of self-defense, help for the infamous Goldstone Commission and refusal to go along with the rest of the pro-Israel community on consensus issues such as Iran and opposition to unilateral Palestinian independence has crippled their ability to make inroads outside of the left.
Just as important, J Street is out of touch with events on the ground in the Middle East. Those Israelis who share the group’s views have been discredited by the events of the last two decades. The Israeli left has been utterly ruined by its blind faith in Palestinian good will.
No better indication of this disconnect can be found than the fact that the keynote speaker at J Street’s conference will be former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert is a virtual pariah in Israel and not just because he is under indictment on corruption charges. He is widely seen as probably the worst leader in the country’s history.
Olmert’s lame duck attempt to hand the Palestinians statehood in Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank, and part of Jerusalem in 2008, was rejected by Mahmoud Abbas. The offer was just the latest proof that Israel has no peace partner but this is a message that has yet to get through to J Street. Olmert will get applause at their conference that he could not hope to get at home but that only goes to emphasize the chasm that exists between J Street and the people of Israel.
J Street’s platform, which is predicated on the notion that American Jews must help save Israel from itself, might have made sense generations ago before the Oslo Accords and subsequent events exposed the Palestinians’ disinterest in peace. But after all the withdrawals and the creation of a terror state in Gaza that no sane Jew would wish to duplicate in the West Bank, the idea that Israel needs to be pressured to make sacrifices for the sake of peace belongs in the dustbin of history.
Though J Street can always count on a sympathetic hearing in the liberal mainstream press, it has failed to make a dent in AIPAC’s influence or to have any impact on Congress. Contrary to those who saw the group’s emergence as a genuine threat to the pro-Israel consensus, the hopes of its supporters and the fears of its opponents have been largely unrealized.
J Street isn’t a danger to Israel. It’s irrelevant.
JNS Columnist Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TobinCommentary.