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J Street and the Middle East

J Street, America’s premier liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, has just wrapped up its third annual conference in Washington. There have been sessions and panels on “building peace from the ground up,” on “expanding the tent” and even some passionate condemnations of the Occupation. Amid so much good feeling it’s almost possible to lose sight of one of J Street’s fundamental missions: to promote and guarantee America’s lavish and unconditional military aid to Israel.

This may seem like a harsh assessment of the lobbying group. After all, isn’t J Street routinely attacked by neocon ultras and praised by American liberals? But hack through J Street’s verbiage about “dialogue” and “conversation” and one finds this blandly phrased position statement: “American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, is an important anchor for a peace process based on providing Israel with the confidence and assurance to move forward on a solution based on land for peace. J Street consistently advocates for robust US foreign aid to Israel.” This last sentence is 99% of what one needs to know about J Street.

We Americans aren’t used to talking about the one thing we are most directly responsible for in the Israel-Palestine conflict: our $3bn annual military aid package that goes almost exclusively to one of the two sides. A bit weirdly, debate about Israel/Palestine among Americans tends to leap immediately to the issue of a one-state versus a two-state solution. Or we presume to give the Palestinians tips and pointers about what degree of violence is morally acceptable, and where’s the Palestinian Gandhi? Or we vow to redouble our efforts towards a “peace process” which doesn’t always seem to exist.

The one thing we Americans are not very good at discussing, or even acknowledging, is our already vigorous role in the conflict. Before we continue to micromanage the Palestinians and (to a far lesser degree) the Israelis might we first examine, and scale back, our own outsized contributions to what can only be called a war process.

We Americans badly need to understand that we are not now, have never been a credible arbiter in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Our long record of doing things like shipping free-gratis cluster bombs to the IDF, expediting them when so requested for use on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in 2006, has long disqualified us as “honest brokers”. Rhetoric aside, such lopsided military aid packages are our policy.

This is not another argument against all foreign aid. There are places on the earth where America does indeed owe a blood debt: Ghana, Haiti, Nicaragua for instance, nations historically wronged by our slave trade or by long-term US military occupation. It is strange that J Street or any ostensibly liberal outfit could believe that Israel is deserving of more foreign aid than the three of these impoverished nations combined.

There is a standard response to this criticism of J Street. Their half-measures may be lame, it is conceded, but they are a “comfort zone” for young liberal activists inside the American Jewish community, a space where they can get their message out. I hope it does not seem callous to view ongoing ethnic cleansing, the collective punishment of 1.3 million Gazans, and significant American security interests to be orders of magnitude more important than the sensitivities of the college students who just attended J Street’s conference.

It seems the true function of J Street is to set the acceptable outer limit to our national discourse on Israel/Palestine, and this is worrisome. For J Street has not been brave in its positions. It disapproved of the Goldstone Report; it discouraged a UN investigation into the IDF assault on the Gaza aid flotilla; it threatens to withhold its support from pols who meet with other, less Israel-centric lobbying groups–and that’s just for starters. Of course it’s super that J Street rallied behind congressional Representative Donna Edwards after she voted “present” on a resolution in support of the IDF’s attacks on Gaza in 2009. But if she had voted against the measure, how would J Street have responded? More recently Edwards voted with the majority to give an extra $205 million in emergency military funding to Israel, with only four votes against. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 30s and Israel’s constant flouting of international law regarding settlement construction, a gift of even more military aid seems bizarre. (J Street, predictably, welcomed the disbursement.)

True, J Street sometimes breaks with its neoconservative peers, as when it urged a US vote in favor of last month’s UN Security Council condemnation of ongoing settler expansion in the West Bank. But sporadic compliance with minimal standards is not impressive compared to the clear-cut policy changes urged by other advocacy groups. With Jewish Voice for Peace, the Council for the National Interest, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine and New Policy, the rubber meets the road when it comes to reorienting US policy without equivocation.

Some analysts optimistically see J Street as a sort of gateway drug that will lead its youngish adherents to eventually support a very different role for the United States in the conflict. But for now,J Street will continue to support dialogue, “expanding the tent”, and $3 billion in cluster bombs, white phosphorous and other armaments from the US government to the IDF, no strings attached, year after year.

CHASE MADAR is a civil rights lawyer in New York and a contributor to Le Monde diplomatique, the London Review of Books and PULSEmedia.org.

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