Jeffrey Goldberg and Jeremy Ben-Ami, frenemies at last


There’s a lively exchange over at the Goldblog over what J Street stands for; J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami gives as good as Jeffrey Goldberg has been giving him in recent weeks, and finally – finally –  removes the mealy from his mouth and actually tells us what he stands for. Agree with him, disagree, at least we now know:

He has not just profound disagreements with the Walt-Mearsheimer argument, but what looks to me to be a revulsion of it:

There is no question that over the last 40 to 50 years, the American Jewish community has developed a very sophisticated lobbying mechanism to promote its views and its interests, and I am in awe of that as a student of politics. I also happen to respect and value much of what has been achieved. For instance, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the essential security guarantee that the U.S. provides, the notion that Israel should always have a qualitative military edge — those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the "Israel lobby." J Street is very happy with these achievements, and we support those ends, and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years.

However, when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line.  I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn’t take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.

He is unequivocally for sustaining military aid to Israel at current levels:

JG: If Israel ignores the entreaties of the American president, should continuing American military aid to Israel be up for discussion?

JB: The short answer is no, but there’s actually a longer explanation for the no. The short answer is that military aid should not be on the table — this is an absolutely essential aspect of Israel’s security, and it’s an essential aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, the U.S. should be able to get across that, as an ally, and as a partner in this relationship with its own interests and view of what will actually move the situation forward, its voice and its views need to be listened to, and that means some serious, behind-closed-doors conversations between the president and the prime minister.

He suggests the Obama administration has overemphasized the settlement freeze, but is all for pressure on Israel when the time is right:

If this is a card game, I wouldn’t go all in on the settlement freeze. I think that the settlement freeze is an important precondition, it’s an important early issue, but the fundamental issue is to get to two states, let’s get to a final status agreement, and it’s at that point that I think the full force of the U.S. should be brought to bear on all the parties. And let me be really clear: all the parties.

And on and on. Read it, it’s a nice, frank "frenemies" exchange. (If I’d known that’s what it takes to extract meaningful thinking from Jeremy was a little public abuse, I would have indulged ages ago.)

The best line though comes in commentary by Goldberg’s Atlantic colleague, Andrew Sullivan. Regarding Ben-Ami’s refusal to countenance using military assistance as leverage he says:

Netanyahu knows he can do anything he wants without any real blowback from the US. And he has about as much interest in a two-state solution as I have in marrying a woman.

Sullivan’s not right though — Daniel Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Israel who advised Obama’s campaign, has mapped out grades of pressure short of touching military assistance. Here he is in an interview we had a year and a half ago about a boook he co-wrote about Middle East peace:

As an example of “consequences” that could be exacted for failing to live up to commitments, the book cites the first President Bush’s withholding of loan guarantees to the Shamir government until it agreed to freeze settlement building in 1991. It also notes the political price such tensions create, often undermining Israeli leaders who need to prove to the elctorate that they have the confidence of the U.S. president and the American Jewish community.

The book makes clear that defense funding for Israel must be exempt from such sanctions. And in his interview with JTA, Kurtzer said many steps are taken before economic penalties.

“You don’t think in the first thing to punish somebody, you don’t say we’re going to cut the aid,” he said. “You have discussions, and you show you’re serious.”

By “serious,” Kurtzer said, the United States could send signals by lowering the rank of the officials who deal with Israel or through reducing its commitment to joint U.S.-Israel programs.

“Down the line you might come to the economic issue,” he said.

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