The election of Donald Trump has emboldened fears that the two-state solution will officially be tossed into the dustbin of history. But J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami is undeterred.
The most important value for J Street that is an issue for the Palestinian community is our Zionism. J Street’s raison d’etre in the Jewish community is to say that — for those American Jews who care about there being a nation-state for the Jewish people — things are going in the wrong direction.
Under the dark cloud of Israeli and American leaders who appear united in their disinterest in a two-state solution, and the growing refrain in policy circles that the “window” is gone, J Street, the organization whose signature policy goal is a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — might have found itself foundering. What new ideas can be found when all avenues to the goal have been exhausted? What role does it have left to play in such a bleak context?
The annual J Street Conference that ended Monday in Washington, D.C., raised all these questions — minus the despair. Organizers said that over 3,500 people had turned out, panel rooms were packed to standing-only. The abundant cheering and whooping sometimes felt spontaneous and emotional, at others seemed tinged with effort to be enthusiastic.
One person whose enthusiasm seems effortless is Jeremy Ben Ami, the founder and president of the liberal Zionist organization. Despite all signs pointing to perdition, Ben Ami is indomitable, ticking off a long list of vital roles J Street has to play in the changed landscape of both America and Israel, and insisting on the singular viability of two-state solution. I spoke to Ben Ami as the conference neared its end on the role J Street must play in influencing U.S. government policy, among other things.
With the election of Donald Trump, Israel and America are now both being run by people who are not sympathetic to J Street’s agenda. What is J Street’s role in that kind of environment?
We need to be able to work in both opposition and support mode. I often use an American football metaphor to say that that we were the ‘blocking back’ under Obama, that we were going for the same end zone and trying to clear the way. Now we are on defense and trying to prevent bad things from happening.
For instance, we’re trying to prevent the Iran nuclear deal from being undone. We have to find ways to block that in Congress. Or take away aid to the Palestinians: Senator [Lindsey] Graham has already said that he intends to try and cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. We’ll try to block that. There is going to be a lot of defense.
Our agenda is not a proactive one in terms of legislation, but there is a very proactive agenda politically — since we are also a political organization, not only a lobby. Our political motivation is to win. So we will engage in a number of different races, as we have every year, trying to shift the balance in Congress.