Succot, lies and audiotape


This year, Succot was launched with a bombshell, at least for the community within our community that is neurotically attached to the vicissitudes of "pro-Israel" politics: Eli Lake of the Washington Times last Friday uncovered evidence that Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s director, had misled all of us all along about the involvement of billionaire George Soros.

A great scoop for one of this town’s most dogged reporters, and there’s nothing like a little scandal for shul gossip. But it’s the fall, and new TV series are abundant, so let me liken this to one: The pilot was great, the follow ups have been a dud. Cancel this series while you can.[[READMORE]]

Ami addresses, here, Eli’s stretch of a second report, which posited that Ben-Ami’s dissembling had led the White House to distance itself from the group. (Not since Eve was caught sporting a fig leaf has an avuncular, larger than life yet unforgiving personage inferred so much from a single "no comment.")

Simhat Torah brings this to a close with a whimper, and not one that flatters anyone: The Times or J Street.

In a front page story yesterday, Eli and a colleague, Ben Birnbaum, allege the following, in their lede:

J Street — the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group — facilitated meetings between members of Congress and South African Judge Richard Goldstone, author of a U.N. report that accused the Jewish state of systematic war crimes in its three-week military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Their basis for this charge rests almost entirely on this statement from J Street’s former Israel face, Colette Avital, explaining why she "parted  as friends" with the group (although she didn’t — more on that in a minute):

"At the time Judge Goldstone came to Washington and they were suggesting that they might help him set up his appointments on Capitol Hill."

Richard Goldstone is the South African judge who authored the U.N. Human Rights Council-commissioned report that charged Israel and Hamas with war crimes arising out of the 2009 Gaza War.

I’ve spoken at length with Eli, and a little with Ben about this. On its own, this is pretty thin stuff on which to hang a story, let alone one above the fold on the front page — in fact, it’s virtually nothing. "They were suggesting they might" — Avital clearly had no idea whether they did set up such appointment. It’s a lead, as in fodder to pursue a story — but not more than that.

Eli, in discussions with me, offered two arguments as to why it’s a story.

First, J Street acknowledged being approached to broker such meetings, and said it had made a number of phone calls — how many is not clear, but not more than three.

Ben-Ami told me yesterday, in his latest version of events (more on that in a minute), that J Street had suggested contacts to the organizations that all sides agree did facilitate Goldstone’s Hill meetings, the Open Society Institute and the New America Foundation. Notably, all three groups receive funds from Soros. Ben-Ami also said that J Street might have called one or two congressional offices to see if the lawmakers in question would be interested in such a meeting.

Eli says that’s parsing, but really, it’s not. There’s a substantive difference between sharing contact info, making a couple of calls — and walking into an office and saying, "Hi, I’m Joe Jones from J Street, this is Judge Richard Goldstone, we’re here for an appointment  with Congressman Bloggs." The former suggests being part of a community which includes actors who are sympathetic with Goldstone; the latter adds up to a formal relationship.

Jeremy says that, after that info-sharing and those calls, J Street solicited Avital’s advice on whether to make such appointments — she said Goldstone was at that time regarded as something akin to the devil in Israel, and that it would harm J Street’s brand. Jeremy says he took the advice.

Now, it is true that Jeremy could be lying — he misled everyone about Soros’ involvement after all, and his accounts of what was said to the Times and what was not have shifted slightly — but that doesn’t mean anything at this stage. This isn’t a DC Comics alternate universe — that someone has lied does not automatically mean that everything out of his mouth has the opposite meaning. Instead, previous lies are taken into account when assessing he said/she said cases — the more trustworthy interlocutor gets more of the benefit of the doubt.

Except this isn’t a he said/she said case: Avital never said J Street facilitated such meetings. She said she "parted as friends" because the group was considering such meetings.

One problem I have with the Times story is that no effort was seemingly made to reach out to the congresspeople involved. No one would give the Times the names, but one of them was clearly Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (more on why in a minute). I’ve emailed David Barnes, his spokesman, asking who exactly was at the meeting. I’ve also asked Goldstone.

UPDATE: Richard Goldstone writes: "With regard to the arrangements for the meetings I initially had contact only with OSI. Only in Washington did NAF come into the picture and Daniel Levy of NAF attended some but not all of the meetings. To my knowledge JStreet had no involvement with the arrangements for the meetings. I made this abundently clear to Ben Birnbaum when I spoke to him earlier in the week."

Eli’s other argument is that the figures who did accompany Goldstone are associated with J Street: Morton Halperin, who is the president of OSI, is one of five J Street "directors" listed on its tax forms, and Daniel Levy, who directs the Middle East Task Force at NAF, helped found the group and consults with Jeremy.

This is good fodder for a feature on how and where these liberal Middle East policy groups intersect, and what it all means, or a profile of Morton Halperin. It’s not breaking news, it doesn’t back up Avital’s quote, or more precisely, what Eli and Ben apparently wish to extract from her quote.

First, because there a lot of "directors" who bounce around groups where interests generally but do not wholly overlap. Pick through the names on JTA’s board: Past presidents/chairmen of Hadassah, AIPAC, the Presidents’ Conference etc., yet we’ve at different times made their organizational lives a misery, I’m proud to say. There have been suggestions that these folks should beat us into metaphorical Cheesewhiz for our transgressions against organizational conventional wisdom. These, I’m also proud to say, have gone unheeded. Would Eli countenance the attachment of agendas to his work because his newspaper has been owned by bodies associated with the Unification Church?

Second, because one needs more than shares from Soros’ trough to show common cause. Soros, it’s true, runs OSI as a fiefdom, but is the same true of NAF and J Street? The NAF is a think tank and does not issue official positions, per se, but a number of its senior fellows have positioned themselves against the Iran sanctions regime favored in the mainstream pro-Israel community, and in Congress. J Street supports the sanctions, although it dithered until December. That does not scream out "conspiracy" to me.

Much emphasis is placed in the story on how the Goldstone matter led to Avital’s resignation from J Street — I suppose, in order to bolster the J Street hearts Goldstone thesis.

On the call, Avital says "that’s correct" when Ben asks her about whether she is no longer continuing her affiliation with J Street, and goes on to say that she and J Street did not see "eye to eye" on a number of issues.

Ben asks her what the issues are, and she launches into a lengthy defense of J Street, before she gets back to how she and J Street had different "priorities."

Interestingly, she notes an "invitation to speak" from Jeremy Ben-Ami at this point, and although Ben’s initial probing seems to have to do with her departure from J Street, he does not address this anomaly and doesn’t get back to it. Instead, he presses her to outline the issues where she differed with J Street. Was Hamas-Palestinian Authority unification one of them, he asks? No, and she says "it was more on the issue, what we didn’t see eye to eye, was their connection to Judge Goldstone." She immediately appears to regret this and says she doesn’t want to speak about it.

Now this could because she realized she slipped — or it could be because she really does not know much about it. For reasons unclear to me, the Times audio of the interview is just half of the entire call. I’ve heard from J Street and Times people that what’s missing is Avital’s request that she not be quoted in the story (too late for that — one sets those terms ahead of a conversation.) What J Street people are telling me is that she made it clear it was because she was not familiar enough with the overall topic — i.e., J Street’s woes.

If that’s true, it needed to be in the story.

In a subsequent conference call with the reporters, Ben-Ami and Avital said she was still affiliated with the group. This obviously contradicts what she said on the tape.

The question is, why. Jeremy says its because she’s referring to how her position changed — from what he says was "J Street’s face in Israel" to "J Street’s face in America." This sounds like a nice way of saying she was downgraded — i.e., doing less for less pay.

In any case, the article does not note this, saying only she is arriving here for a speaking tour. One could infer, were one conspiratorially minded, that with the wads of cash J Street has its disposal, the group might have hastily set up such a tour once it got wind of the Washington Times story. Except, J Street has made available to me emails dating back to July 7, planning the tour. (And you don’t plan a mid-October tour in the last week of September.)

Moreover, the Washington Times story and the interview tape, suggest another scenario. The Washington Times notes that Avital "resigned" her J Street post "earlier this year." J Street says it was in February — four months after the Goldstone visit to the Hill. On the tape, she speaks of "priorities" in the plural, she hesitates, she thinks, before she finally comes up with the Goldstone incident.

Clearly, this was not the only reason she left the Israel position, and equally as clearly she remains happy to be associated with the group. Coincidentally, February was around when Ambassaodr Michael Oren started speaking with Jeremy as a matter of routine; his reason for turning around his decision last year not to attend the group’s conference was that on Iran and on Goldstone, J Street had evolved to his satisfaction.

Now, what Avital’s account of her disagreement over Goldstone suggests is a reason for this evolution — the lack of any Israeli constituency for sympathy for the judge. I wrote about this myself last summer, how, on the Iran sanctions issue, J Street and other liberal groups were staking out territory that had no constituency in Israel.

But that’s not the story that appeared in the Washington Times.

This story that did appear is flimsy enough that you’d think J Street would seize upon it to hit back hard after Eli so thoroughly embarrassed them about Jeremy’s dissembling last week.

They tried. They screwed up, majorly.

Instead of getting out the unvarnished truth, J Street put two items up on its blog that were short on truth — one from Avital, one as a statement of the group.

Here’s Avital:

I was and am completely unaware of any effort by J Street to facilitate visits by Judge Richard Goldstone to Capitol Hill.

"Any effort" is what makes this a clunker. The initial calls to the congressional officies — even if there was just one such call — adds up to "helped facilitate." Not "facilitated" exclusively, as the Times would have it, and not in itself worthy of a front page story. Moreover, she was aware of it because Jeremy had consulted with her about whether or not to set up the visits.

My role changed with J Street earlier this year because the organization had changing priorities – not because I left the organization, which I have not.

This raises whole new questions — why did Avital’s role change just as the Israeli ambassador seemed to indicate that J Street’s priorities were in line with those she had espoused? But, in any case, she told Ben she had left, and pretty unequivocally.

Now to J Street’s statement:

J Street did not host, arrange or facilitate Judge Richard Goldstone’s visit in November 2009.

Wrong. It helped faciliate the visit at first, and then backed away from further involvement on the advice of its Israel liaison. The truth would have sucked the wind out of this story. The lie, above, spurs it forward. Someone needs time in truth-telling rehab.

A few things to wrap up:

–J Street has a "who am I" problem. It can’t keep re-releasing this statement:

J Street has deep respect for Judge Goldstone, despite the problems we have with the UN Human Rights Council and our view that his report has been used by those who don’t care much for a balanced view of human rights violations around the world but are focused excessively on undermining Israel itself in the court of world opinion.

and then run away from Goldstone like he has the cooties. Can you take someone with whom you don’t see eye to eye, but whom you respect, to the Hill?  It happens all the time. The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, just last week, explained how she routinely shleps Palestinian Media Watch’s Itamar Marcus up to the Hill, even though they disagree on the trustworthiness of the current Palestinian Authority government: Marcus may not want two states, she effectively said, but his work exposing incitement helps lay the ground for two states.

Now you can pick that apart — there are those on the left who would argue that Marcus obfuscates rather than elucidates the degree of P.A. incitement — but it’s at least a coherent explanation. Ben-Ami could take a few lessons from Jennifer.

It goes to J Steet’s Iran issue — instead of figuring it out for itself, J Street hooked its approval of sanctions to Berman’s. But it is J Street, not Howard Berman’s Brain Street. Attaching itself to the political fortunes of an idea rather than to the idea itself is a recipe for irrelevance.

–Why the hell shouldn’t Goldstone have met with the Congress members? I mean, please, come down to Washington and stroll around Cannon, Rayburn, Dirksen and take in for yourself the characters that gain entree into congressional offices. And not a few of them are being shlepped around by folks you’re liable to bump into at your next policy conference. Goldstone should get herem but not Avigdor Lieberman?

Moreover, the meetings might have done some good. As I recounted here and here and here, the original anti-Goldstone resolution that circulated was profoundly unfair to him. Berman changed it (which is why I’m pretty sure he or a senior staffer must have met with Goldstone.) So instead of passing a joke, Congress passed a resolution condemning the U.N. Human Right Council’s handling of the matter that actually, you know, did the UNHRC damage. If you think not, read this account by the International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope of how the United Nations is treating inquiries into the May 31 Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla. The short of it is, it’s not a train heading for a wreck, with Israel’s reputation as its sole victim.

Here’s a postscript: I don’t think Goldstone is Uncle Evil any longer in Israel. His reputation morphed from Pompous Traitor to Wounded Grandpa after South African Zionists tried to muscle him out of his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.

Amazing what self-inflicted wounds can accomplish.

UPDATE: Shmuel Rosner tells me I’m wrong — Goldstone is still viewed as Uncle Evil. And I accept the point.

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