For the past four years, far right-wing pro-Israel groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Middle East Forum have enjoyed unprecedented influence on the White House. More mainstream pro-Israel groups like AIPAC have still been influential, but less so than in the past as the administration of Donald Trump has charted its own course, led largely by supporters of the Israeli settler movement such as Mike Pompeo, David Friedman, and Jared Kushner.
With Joe Biden set to take control in just a few days, the dovish pro-Israel lobbying group, J Street, is poised to regain the voice it had in Washington during the Barack Obama administration. While never the dominant voice in Washington, the group certainly had a seat at the table under Obama and is likely to have an even more prominent place in Biden’s meeting room. Incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken is a familiar face to many in J Street and allied groups, and both he and Biden, among other notable figures in the Biden administration, have spoken at J Street conferences.
So it’s important to take a good look at what policies and positions J Street is proposing to the Biden administration. J Street has sent a policy memo to the Biden team detailing their recommendations for addressing the issue of Israel-Palestine. The memo, which I obtained, has four main goals.
- Undo at least some of the damage Trump did
- Restore the parameters of a two-state solution
- Refine the opposition to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) so it does not pit support for Israel against free speech
- Change long-standing policy from one where the U.S. is the only broker of talks to a multi-lateral approach
It’s not an overly ambitious agenda, although given the list of crises the Biden administration will be inheriting, less ambition on Israel-Palestine is certainly defensible. But, despite some assertions to the contrary, these demands seem geared largely toward restoring the framework of the peace process that failed so dismally not during Trump’s administration, but during Obama’s. Secondarily, they seem more geared toward securing some measure of influence for J Street rather than really affecting matters on the ground in Israel-Palestine. That sounds more cynical than it is; Israel-Palestine is nowhere near the top of the Biden-Harris agenda right now, and it’s understandable for a group like J Street—which, let’s not forget, is a distinctly D.C.-oriented group and whose priority, as their slogan states, is being “pro-Israel, pro-peace”—to think in terms of laying groundwork, rather than pushing for significant change.
Still, it does make it much more imperative for more progressive groups to press for more substantive moves to change U.S. policy. Steps like countermanding Mike Pompeo’s declaration that Israeli settlements are not illegal under international law or restoring the distinction between products imported from Israel and from its settlements beyond the Green Line are important, but hardly a bold call to action considering the desperate state of Palestinians in both the West Bank and, especially, the Gaza Strip.
In a sense, that recommendation reflects the lowered bar in the wake of the Trump administration’s disastrous policies. Biden and Harris, who have repeatedly voiced support for a two-state solution, should not need to be told to countermand the erasure of the Green Line, separating Israel within its internationally recognized borders from the territories it occupied in 1967.
It is telling that perhaps the most significant demand in the memo is that the incoming Biden administration announce that, once the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is resolved, it will open an embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem. This action would make no changes on the ground, but, presumably, would help the Palestinians accept that it is politically impossible for any American president to put the genie of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem back in the bottle. Along with immediately re-opening a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, J Street surely hopes this will give Palestinian negotiators the space they need to resume talks. It’s not certain that would suffice to restart talks.
At their last conference before the pandemic made such things impossible, it was clear that a large portion of J Street supporters believed that the United States should condition aid to Israel on Israel’s cooperation with peace talks. J Street responded to that desire by calling for greater transparency and ensuring that U.S. aid is not spent on annexation, home demolitions, settlement expansion or violate “international human rights law.”
But U.S. law already makes that restriction and J Street calls for no new measures to ensure Israeli compliance, which is the problem. The fact that they call for Biden to ensure that U.S. funds don’t go toward annexation, rather than saying annexation would cost Israel aid, no matter the bookkeeping on the source of the funds, is deeply problematic. Funds are fungible, and it would be easy enough for Israel to simply use U.S. funds for other things. Indeed, Israel has often done just that, to ensure they can pursue their policies without jeopardizing U.S. aid. It’s a loophole that should be closed.
J Street employs very vague language around some of their other demands. For instance, they call on the U.S. to stop providing “blanket protection” for Israel in international fora, while also defending Israel in instances where Israel is treated “unfairly” or disproportionately.” Before Trump, that’s exactly what every administration claimed to do, so this, again, seems like a reversion to status quo ante of the Obama days. The call raises the question of what is “disproportionate” or “unfair,” debates which have repeatedly stymied action against Israeli human rights violations. It’s another loophole that needs to be closed, not reinforced.
Other demands seem tailored to fit processes already underway. For example, J Street calls on Biden to work with the Palestinian Authority to reform its payments to the families of those killed or imprisoned by Israel with a welfare program that can escape the charge of “incentivizing violence,” that has led to laws that bar funding to the Palestinians. The PA is already working on that, and they are doing so at the behest of Democrats, according to reports.
A more puzzling demand is that Biden reverse Trump’s determination that the PLO does not meet the conditions necessary to keep their office in DC open, under the 1987 Anti-Terrorism Act.
But there was no such determination. As Lara Friedman has explained, all Trump had to do to shutter the PLO’s DC office was refuse to affirm that they were not trying to join United Nations agencies or bringing cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court. The Palestinians, of course, had been, rightly, doing both for years, and, in fact, Trump and Obama before him were lying when they affirmed otherwise. They did so with the aim of waiving the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act that would prevent the PLO from operating in the U.S. Ironically, all Trump had to do to close the PLO Mission was tell the truth.
This is not mere wordplay. In earlier years, Congress was prepared, and made it legal, to accept a presidential waiver based on it being important for U.S. interests. But, as Friedman explained, “As the peace process stalled and Congress again grew hostile to the Palestinians, that waiver authority was made increasingly conditional.” Because the shift was gradual, Obama and Trump were able to get away with simply issuing the waiver every six months, even though the Palestinians were clearly not meeting the conditions. Biden would have to reinstate the waiver under those same conditions, and that is a much harder task with a hostile Congress. It is also by no means certain the Palestinians would be willing to re-open their mission with the threat of closure always hanging over them.
Despite these shortcomings, we should not minimize the J Street having the ear of the top foreign policy planners in the Biden administration—up to, and including, the president-elect himself. That’s a huge swing from the groups that the Trump administration looked at for their foreign policy advice, which included not only the ZOA and MEF, but also some of the strongest advocates for war and for the total disregard of human life, such as the Orwellian-named Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
J Street is clearly a most welcome alternative to AIPAC, AJC, and other groups more aligned to the Democratic party who have repeatedly shown complete disregard for Palestinian rights and even the very humanity of Palestinians. If their intention here is to make the Biden team comfortable with their advice to cement their influence and position themselves for more ambitious policy goals in the future, that is a worthwhile strategy. It’s also one that should open the door for more progressive voices to push the boundaries of policy possibilities.
J Street seems also to be trying to turn the developments of the past few years into advantages. Encouraging greater participation of the Arab states that have established normal relations with Israel could have the effect of turning their current expressions of exasperation and disdain with the Palestinians into a more substantive engagement with Israel to compromise, which would surely benefit the Arab autocrats’ positions in their countries.
Perhaps of greatest benefit is J Street’s call for Biden to oppose actions that would criminalize or penalize calls for boycotts as well as the codification of problematic definition of antisemitism that collapse criticism of Israel with attacks on Jews.
Increased support for people to people programs such as the recently enacted Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund Act. And things like re-stating the illegality of settlements, scrapping Trump’s ludicrous “Deal of the Century,” clearly opposing any unilateral Israeli annexation, and bringing more parties in to contribute to finding a resolution is certainly welcome.
But if J Street is to be the voice of reason, and the pro-peace flank in Biden’s ear, they need to acknowledge that the old framework failed and consider what might be more successful. Certainly, they need to be more ambitious over time than their initial policy memo reflects. It is a huge improvement from the days of Trump, but that is too low a bar.
Palestinians are desperate and Israelis no longer believe a solution is possible in the foreseeable future. Bolder action is needed under these circumstances. The responsibility for pushing those boundaries will therefore fall on Palestinian voices and it will be incumbent on their progressive supporters to reinforce their message and to ensure that real justice and peace for all, Jews and Arabs, in Israel and Palestine is, at long last, the progressive and liberal policy agenda. That’s our job, not J Street’s.