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Michael Oren hurts Israel by snubbing J Street

Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S, is the Jewish state’s highest ranking envoy to the American government and, by extension, to the American people. One of his principal responsibilities is to ensure that, when push comes to shove, Americans –including American Jews– will support U.S. efforts to protect Israel’s core security interests.

That is why his recent attacks on J Street are undiplomatic and unwise. Oren said he has a problem with J Street because “it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments,” it is “outside the mainstream” and it is “fooling around with the lives of seven million.”

In fact, much to the chagrin of the anti-Israel far left, J Street is in complete agreement with the Israeli government and the American Jewish mainstream on the most important issues. It is left-of-center when compared to the rest of the organized Jewish community, but on the broad, global ideological spectrum, it is a decidedly moderate group.

Look at J Street’s official positions. It has affirmed that Israel needs to maintain its qualitative military edge and supports continued American aid to Israel. After supporting Obama’s approach to cautious engagement with Iran, it recently endorsed a Senate bill for tougher sanctions against Iran. It has not called for Israel to negotiate with Hamas, contrary to what Oren and others have implied. It has said that no progress can take place without a unity government that includes Hamas, and that if Israel wants to negotiate with Hamas, the U.S. should not stop it. That is an admittedly subtle distinction but an important one. J Street is actually more conservative than the Israel public on that question, since, as the Forward points out, 57% of Israelis favor talks with Hamas under certain conditions.

Most importantly, it is absolutely unthinkable that J Street would support an American government if it tried to impose conditions –e.g., borders, security arrangements– that the Israeli government believed would compromise Israel’s core security requirements.

Those are the big issues, the key existential questions of concern to “seven million people.” Israel would have a hard time if most American Jews and most of the American people did not agree with J Street on these matters. Yes, there have been some serious disagreements between J Street and the Israeli government over the Goldstone report and the war in Gaza. But the way to deal with them is to engage with J Street and explain why the Israeli government thinks they are wrong, not make them a cause celebre with public denunciations or try to completely marginalize them. In doing the latter, Oren is writing off a large swath of American Jews –and other Americans– who associate themselves with the positions of J Street and whose continued, active support will be needed in the dangerous days ahead.

An ambassador needs to cultivate potential allies, not insult them.

Oren has written a history of the U.S. and Israel and no doubt remembers the early years of the Rabin administration and the Oslo process. He probably recalls that one of his predecessors, Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, was pelted with eggs in one synagogue and hooted and harassed in others. He probably remembers when Likud supporters in the U.S. lobbied against the declared positions of the Israeli government, with the open encouragement of Benjamin Netanyahu.

I was a consultant to the Israeli Consulate in New York for a brief time during this period, and what I remember was that Israeli officials tried to engage with their detractors. They met with them, talked to them, tried to convince them of the errors of their ways. The Israelis knew that despite the terrible squabbling, despite incidents like the one in which Education Minister Shulamit Aloni was punched in the stomach by a right-wing Jew, these anti-Oslo forces could not be written off and treated as lepers and exiles. Down the road, Israel was going to need them on the most important issues.

No one is pelting Michael Oren with eggs. Why he won‘t meet with the J Streeters and speak to them in public is not just wrongheaded: it is mystifying.

18 thoughts on “Michael Oren hurts Israel by snubbing J Street

  1. It is counterproductive, at best, for Michael Oren to snub J Street. My initial assumption would be that he’s doing it because he works for the current Israeli government, which is a hard-right coalition in the end. But that’s too easy an answer, because I think Oren and the prime minister for whom he works, are smarter than that, and the marginal returns of bully J Street seem to be outweighed by what looks to be just that–bullying. That said, perhaps Oren et al. feel that snubbing J Street will cause Ben Ami to take what Oren would consider to be a more reasoned approach in promoting the peace process. But that’s just what Ben Ami has been doing in my opinion, as he seems to be drifting steadily away from his “left” base on many issues such as Iran. It’s an odd strategy Oren has chosen; I don’t get it and I don’t like it.

  2. Ben Ami comes across as centrist to me. The fact J Street is getting flack from both the left and the right confirms it for me.

    I’m going to guess hawks (with whom I sometimes agree) feel J Street is more far reaching and mainstream than say, Mondo loco and other rabid opponents of Israel. That’s why they don’t bother with Weiss–when in fact, I wish they would.

    I don’t care how many Muslims are on J street’s board…it’s clear to me that Ben Ami cares about Israel. It doesn’t matter to me whether I agree 100% with his take on things. He’s not an enemy of Israel.

  3. An organization that allows a session in its convention to be made up of radical anti-Israel polemicists like Silverstein and Phil Weiss and anti-Zionists like MagnesZionist, can NOT call itself “pro-Israel”. Yes, Ben-Ami has been shifting ground. But you must remember that Michael Oren is most definitely a NOT “right-winger”, he does not support the settlements. Don’t forget also that the Labor Party is part of this coalition. Thus, I believe that the criticism coming from the Israeli government towards J-Street is designed as a warning to both American politicians and truly pro-Israel American Jews to keep their distance from this dangerous organization, who after all, was created in order to create a split in the American Jewish community.

  4. Well YBD, you are breathing life into the point I made the other day, and that is that the Weiss’ contingent of the American Israel-focused constituency allows folks who oppose a fair and just two-state solution to discredit J Street. But I think that Ben-Ami knows that the future of J Street does not rest on retaining support from Phil Weiss et al. What’s remain curious to me, then, assuming Oren is acting on his own as you appear to suggest and not in accordance with those who control the Israeli governing coalition, is why Oren would seek to discredit J Street now. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not saying Oren should publicly embrace Ben-Ami, but I think the prudent thing is for him to do would be to demonstrate respect for Ben-Ami and give sign that the Israeli government takes J Street seriously.

  5. Fleshler has it right. Ambassadir Oren is being reckless by his not understanding what is happening politically in the US, not only among American Jews but in the larger community.
    The closed mindedness of so much of the American Jewish establishment–particularly as personified by Hoenlein, Foxman and David Harris (American jewish Committee– has contributed to confusion and a feeling of misdirection to many American Jews who care about Israel being a democratic and Jewish state.
    J Street has created a welcome political space
    with its firm pro-Israel pro-Peace framing of the larger issue. That contribution contributes to the beginnig of change and success in US policy in the Israeli-Palestinian matter.
    It’s a long haul. We’re far from where we need to be. J Street has the stamina and persistence to help us get there.

  6. Eye on the prize.

    If the prize is enough land for Jews to have safe haven and self-governance in a viable Jewish cultural community, then the Arab League proposal is an excellent starting point. IF Israel stated in good will that we will accept 99% of the green line territory in square miles, I expect that the remaining issues would be resolvable in a couple hours.

    If the prize is greater Israel, then American Jews will continually have a sickeningly plausible basis of guilt of participating in the illegal and immoral expropriation of land, of violation of fundamental Torah principles.

    The shift for Israel is from thinking in terms of reluctance to reconcile with the PA, for the distrust that they “mean” to harm us, to thinking, speaking and acting, HOW to accomplish mutual health.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1134720.html

    I refuse to be your enemy

    By Bradley Burston

  7. Bruce-
    I don’t agree with you characterization of what I said as saying that Oren is “acting on his own” at all. The government is not “hard-line right-wing”. As I pointed out, the Labor Party is a member of the coalition. The official position is “two states for two nations”. Then there is the “settlement freeze”. Oren was chosen specifically because he is NOT a “right-winger”, although he is most definitely a Zionist, with Left-wing Zionists being a somewhat disappearing breed.

  8. Oren’s decision is typical of what is demanded of anyone who would be a friend of Israel – 100 % uncritical support, 100% of the time.

    That J Street is in agreement with most Israeli govt policies and most of it’s peer groups among Isral’s advocates matters not a whit to Oren: he’s too blinded by his own zeal to distinguish between constructive criticism and hostility. to him they’re both the same thing.

    He will eventually find out, to his regret, that they are very different.

  9. shiz.tzu (great name!):

    He get his marching orders from both Bibi’s people and the Foreign Ministry (we know who controls that apparatus now). Presumably this is what they want him to do.

  10. Dan, why did J Street endorse more Iran sanctions? Actions such as that are showing your left-wing doubters that J Street is AIPAC with better messaging.

    “[I]t is absolutely unthinkable that J Street would support an American government if it tried to impose conditions –e.g., borders, security arrangements– that the Israeli government believed would compromise Israel’s core security requirements.” Isn’t the fact that the security wall runs through the West Bank proof that Israel’s government believes that the 1967 borders compromise Israel’s core security requirements? Does J Street support the wall’s current location?

    YBD, Tom Friedman making sense is an oxymoron. Read Daniel Larison’s two posts:

    http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2009/12/16/friedmans-jihad/

    http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2009/12/18/friedmans-blind-spot/

  11. Norwegian Straight Shooter,

    How’s by you? J Street diverges with AIPAC on some issues and agrees with it on others. On Iran, it is basically taking the lead of the Obama administration. I’m on the Board of APN, which is the only major group in the organized Jewish community which opposed the sanctions bill. That said, I don’t know what to think. No matter what the “left wing doubters” say, I believe Iran, as presently constituted, is a destabilizing and dangerous force in the region and in the world. If I thought the sanctions would make it pull back from the nuclear precipice, I would be wholeheartedly in favor of them, too. Sorry to disappoint you. Please remember the name of this blog…

    There are several reasons for the route of the security barrier but parts of it dip deep into the West Bank (mostly) to protect settlements that, I would venture to guess, most people at J Street do not think should be part of a final settlement with the Palestinians. When the security barrier was being constructed, it was supposed to be a temporary boundary. That is how I look at it. At any rate, like J Street, I do think Israel has core security requirements. which include protection from Palestinians who want to murder people in shopping malls. Do you?

  12. Norwegian:

    I don’t understand how the sanctions will help deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and I’m uncomfortable with the thought that such a tactic will hurt regular people more than the folks who we want to influence there.

    But could you explain to me what the “left-wing” doubter” position is with respect to Iran? What if diplomacy doesn’t work? Shold the international community sit back and allow the weapons to be developed? Maybe the answer is yes, we should let Iran do what it wants to do, but then I think the “left wing doubters” should be prepared to stake that position out.

    My understanding of APN’s position is that diplomacy should be given more time, and I can live with that and I guess I agree with that position. My hunch is, and Dan can correct me if I’m wrong, that at some point, APN would favor sanctions if Iran continues to develp a nuclear arsenal.

    Finally, to the extent that some “left wing doubters” might take the position that since Israel has nukes Iran should be allowed to have them too, I don’t think J Street or APN would join in that position, and I don’t think that would make either organization identical to AIPAC. Not suggesting this is your position, but I’ve read the same logic here and there.

  13. Norwegian Shooter:

    J Street is in favour of the security fence but says that it should be “along an internationally recognized border.” –http://www.jstreet.org/page/settlements.

    I do not think much of Michael Oren. His history of the Six Day War was quite one sided, he talks in interviews about how clever the Jewish people are, and claims to be an unbiased historian.

  14. Dan, I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I’m completely against more sanctions vs. Iran. They will strengthen the regime and increase its desire to control the full nuclear cycle – thus they are counter-productive. I don’t think the Obama administration has endorsed Berman’s bill. But in any case, why would J Street (or any other lobby) follow the lead of the President? Shouldn’t there be an independent rationale to its position?

    Does “not part of a final settlement” mean Israel keeps the territories within the wall and swaps other Israel land for them? Of course I think Israel has core security requirements that include stopping suicide bombers. My point here was if the US government advocated Israel to abandon all settlements in the West Bank, would J Street oppose it?

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