J Street, Iran, and democracy

Airing one's dirty laundry in public is not the way to cement the relationship between the US and Israel.

Baruch Stein

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Baruch Stein
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As US  President Obama has acknowledged, opposition to the Iran agreement is widespread in Israel. Polls confirm that nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum opposed it, but disagreed on how best to stop it. 

Despite Obama’s claim that, “every nation in the world, that has commented publically, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support,” (19:50) opposition is still widespread, even in America. Despite the filibuster, both houses of Congress were opposed. A Quinnipiac poll found that 58% of American voters think it, “will make the world less safe,” and Pew found that only 21% of Americans support it.   

Essentially all Republicans were united in opposition with significant Democratic voices joining them, like ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, ranking Democrat in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, and ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Ted Deutch. Including Cardin and Engel, all four leaders, Republican and Democrat, of the congressional committees for foreign policy from both houses, opposed the deal. The list of opposing Democrats also included non-jews like Senators Joe Manchin, and Robert Menendez. 

Within the American Jewish community opposition is vast. After its review, including meetings with John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, members of Congress, diplomats, and other experts, The American Jewish Committee concluded that the agreement, “validated Iran’s future status as a nuclear threshold state, a point that President Obama himself acknowledged in a media interview.” They note that, “we were told by P5+1 negotiators: ‘The alternative to a bad deal is no deal.’ What happened to that formulation…?”

The Sunni states also seem to be among the many whose position is less enthusiastic than the President’s. Though a more engaged position would be expected given their stake, they seem to have resigned themselves to no more than muted abstention, sold to Obama in exchange for exorbitant amounts of, “aid.”

Obama said in a press conference that, “my hope is, is that everyone in Congress also evaluates this agreement based on the facts… not based on lobbying…” (16:46). After-all, his career has been a continuous diatribe against lobbyists (real and imagined).  

J Street, though, is a very special interest lobby group. Neither Israelis’ collective will, nor Americans’, appears to bear on their “support for Israel.” By the day after it was announced, they had raised $2 Million for their campaign to support the final deal, seemingly needing no review period to consider it.

In a Haaretz Op-Ed published in June, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami asserted that, “There is growing tension between the United States and Israel not because of Obama’s public disagreement with the policies of the Netanyahu government but because those policies are leading Israel down a path that runs counter to the interests and values of the United States, as well as to Israel's own long-term interests.…”

The article, titled Michael Oren, the Problem Isn't U.S. Critique of Israeli Policies It's Israeli Policies, responds to a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by the MK and former Ambassador. Ben-Ami mischaracterizes Oren’s position as seeking, “…an American demonstration of public and uncritical fealty to Israeli policy….”

Oren never said that The United States should not disagree with Israeli policy, he only said that such disagreements should not be aired in public.

...by disagreeing in private without defaming in public you maintain an underlying intimacy and allegiance lost in public displays.
It is no surprise that the founder of an organization that expresses its dedication to Israel by shouting its disdain for everything Israel does has trouble with the principle of “not airing your dirty laundry in public,” and with the distinction between private disagreement and public defamation, the difference being that by disagreeing in private without defaming in public you maintain an underlying intimacy and allegiance lost in public displays.

Ben-Ami addresses Oren saying, “Perhaps at some points in history, great powers have defined relations this way with dependent client states. Never in history has the junior partner in an alliance demanded such control over the words and actions of its more powerful partner.”

Ben-Ami blames Israel for current tension in its relationship with the US, taking an approach akin to, ‘might makes right, the US is bigger than Israel, so it is upon Israel to accommodate Obama’s whims.’

Under Democratic Theory a government’s legitimacy comes from its political representation of the will of its citizens.

Unfortunately for Ben-Ami, a former White House official, the job of the Israeli government is to pursue what Israelis determine to be their own interests. Neither Ben-Ami’s assessment of Israel’s interests, nor that of Obama, or any foreign entity, is at play.

Israeli and American interests almost always converge, but when differences between countries inevitably come up it is important to recognize the rights and independence of those who disagree with you, and to disagree respectfully and discretely in a way that maintains the overall relationship, without blaming or attacking another for their disagreement. It is not Israel’s job to forfeit itself to pursuing the interests of the United States, and the US-Israel relationship does not depend on its doing so.        

Baruch Stein holds a BA in Political Science from Penn State University with minors in Middle Eastern Studies, Jewish Studies, and Philosophy. After growing up in Pennsylvania, he has lived in Jerusalem for seven years.