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J Street Seeks to Broaden Dialogue on US Policy Toward Israel

Two years ago, a nonprofit advocacy group called J Street was formed to urge “a new direction for American policy in the Middle East – diplomatic solutions over military ones, multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution, and dialogue over confrontation.”

In the past, Jewish-Americans have been perceived by some critics as having a unitary position on matters of policy regarding Israelis and Palestinians – that is, support for the government of Israel, whatever political party in Israel controls the prime minister-ship.

J Street wants everyone to know that American Jews, like Israelis themselves, hold a variety of views – from far right to far left on the political spectrum.

Vision of the Founders

The name J Street itself is something of an enigma. For 200 years, Washington, DC, has been organized in such a way that every letter in the alphabet has a street named after it – except there is no J Street. That’s what J Street’s founders were trying to express when they chose a name for their new organization.

“It signifies the absence of a pro-Israel, pro-peace voice in Washington,” said MJ Rosenberg, currently senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. Rosenberg was among the founders of the new organization who believed the best way to secure Israel’s future was through negotiations and peace.

“The difference between J Street and AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] is that AIPAC tends to support the policies of the Israeli government and believes that the status quo - though not desirable – is OK,” Rosenberg said.

“The people who founded J Street think that the status quo is disastrous, that the only way Israel can be secure as a country is by achieving a two-state solution with the Palestinians,” he said.

But in the two years since the new organization was founded, lines of communication between Israel and J Street have not always been a two-way street. There have been major controversies.

"One example was that last year the Ambassador of Israel to the United States, Michael Oren, turned down an invitation to address J Street’s annual conference,” former VOA Jerusalem correspondent Meredith Buel noted.

According to Rosenberg, those controversies are now in the process of being resolved.

“The Israeli government is used to, and likes, having Jewish organizations … that simply support what the government does,” said Rosenberg. He notes how foreign that is to the American way of thinking.

“I don’t think I know anyone who ever says, ‘The U.S. government says it and, therefore, I support it.’ That’s not the tradition that we grow up with,” Rosenberg said.

In the case of J Street, he added, it is a matter of supporting the policies that are “best for Israel and, I have to say, for the United States.”

Negotiation as Policy Favored

As far as J Street is concerned, everything is up for negotiation – except terrorism.

It favor negotiations on the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and refugees. “J Street … favors negotiation on all these questions.” Rosenberg said.

J Street also favors a settlement freeze. “But as far as what happens in these negotiations, J Street doesn’t take a position on them,” Rosenberg explained. “Its assumption is that anything the Israelis and the Palestinians agree upon, J Street will support.”

On the issue of Iran, Rosenberg said, J Street supports sanctions. But the membership of J Street is divided.

“There are strong constituencies that favor purely the diplomatic route on Iran,” Rosenberg noted.

Rosenberg said J Street, by definition, is not the kind of organization in which there will be one line on anything. It was created in part, he said, to get away from whole idea that the American Jewish community speaks with one voice.

“The one thing that would unite everyone who associates with J Street is the belief that the only way to resolve this conflict is by U.S. leadership to promote negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians now.” Rosenberg said.

J Street and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

In the beginning, the Obama administration said that the Middle East peace process would be a top foreign policy priority and on the second full day in office George Mitchell was named as special envoy. “The administration’s commitment was admirable and forceful,” Rosenberg said.

“But the President’s efforts floundered a bit when he asked the Israelis to implement a settlement freeze and the Netanyahu government basically said no,” said Rosenberg. He is also critical of the Palestinians’ reluctance to join direct talks.

“Once you join talks in which the United States is the mediator, there is a strong possibility that things will happen, but we can’t make them happen by ourselves.”

“The President’s plate is so full,” Rosenberg notes. “Traditionally breakthroughs in the Middle East have required the involvement not just of the Secretary of State but of the President of the United States.” Rosenberg observed.

Right now, Rosenberg admits, domestic issues such as the economic recession and health care seem to be on the front burner.

Prospects for Negotiations

“I am a strong believer in the power of the President of the United States,” said Rosenberg. “ I think, if the President of the United States puts a plan on the table, and says I want direct negotiations – this may be naïve of me to say, but I believe it would happen.”

His reasoning is that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are dependent on the United States.
Rosenberg said that American presidents, except for Jimmy Carter with the Camp David agreement and the first President Bush with the Madrid conference, have ”backed down” from their original policy positions on negotiations.

Political Obstacles

While reaching a Middle East peace is plagued by serious political obstacles for each of the three major players – Israeli President Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and President Obama, Rosenberg says it’s not an American president’s job to worry about Israel or the Palestinians’ domestic problems.

Rosenberg said he believes that the American public and the pro-Israel community would support an American president who put his prestige on the line.

“Continuation of this conflict jeopardizes the American national interest, American troops abroad, and American economic interests,” Rosenberg urged.

But as correspondent Meredith Buel explained, both Israelis and Palestinians complain that the United States doesn’t understand the domestic concerns that they are dealing with. That makes it much more difficult to move forward.

Still, Rosenberg said he both the Palestinian and Israeli people desperately want peace.
“You have to crack the ice somehow, and that requires both sides doing things, sometimes symbolic things, to indicate good will,” said Rosenberg.

Rosenberg recalls moments of relative peace in the past. He said he hopes it can be done again. ______________________________________________________________________________
MJ Rosenberg previously worked on Capitol Hill for various Democratic members of the House and Senate. He was a political appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration. In the early 1980s, he was editor of Near East Report, the weekly newsletter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also known as AIPAC. And from 1998 until late last year, he was director of policy at the Israel Policy Forum.