Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times (Opinion)
August 4, 2011 - 12:00am

Congress periodically showcases the warts of democracy, occasionally even the deformities and disfigurements, and it might seem difficult to top the latest debt ceiling horrors. But there’s one area where Congress has been even more obstructionist: the Middle East.

Next month, Palestinians are expected to seek statehood at the United Nations. It’s a stunt that won’t accomplish much for anybody, but it’s more constructive than throwing rocks at Israeli cars — or, on the Israeli side, better than expanding illegal settlements. A prominent Israeli politician, Isaac Herzog, has shrewdly suggested that Israel actually offer, with conditions, to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Yet the American House of Representatives voted 407 to 6 to call on the Obama administration to use its diplomatic capital to try to block the initiative, while also threatening to cut the Palestinians’ funding if they proceeded to seek statehood.

Similarly, when Israel stormed into Gaza in 2008 to halt rocket attacks, more than 1,300 Gazans were killed, along with 13 Israelis, according to B’Tselem, a respected Israeli human rights group. As Gazan blood flowed, the House, by a vote of 390 to 5, hailed the invasion as “Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Such Congressional tomfoolery bewilders our friends and fritters away our international capital. It also encourages the intransigence of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reduces the chance of a peace settlement.

In the last few years, a former government official named Jeremy Ben-Ami has been trying to change the political dynamic in Washington with a new organization — J Street — that presses Congress and the White House to show more balance. Ben-Ami has just published a book, “A New Voice for Israel,” that is a clarion call for American reasonableness in the Middle East.

“If things don’t change pretty soon, chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers,” Ben-Ami writes. “As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears.”

Ben-Ami, who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, comes from a long line of Zionists, and his ancestors helped found Tel Aviv. But he’s aghast at the way the United States is enabling hard-line Israeli policies that make peace less likely.

American Jews have long trended liberal, and President Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Yet major Jewish organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, embrace hawkish positions.

That’s because those Jews who vote and donate based on Israel are disproportionately conservative (the same is true of Christians who are most passionate about Israel issues). Ben-Ami argues that “the loudest eight percent” have hijacked Jewish groups to press for policies that represent neither the Jewish mainstream nor the best interests of Israel.

Some see this influence of Jewish organizations on foreign policy as unique and sinister, but Congress often surrenders to loudmouths who have particular foreign policy grievances and claim to have large groups behind them. Look at the way extremists in the Cuban-American community have insisted upon sanctions on Cuba that have helped sustain Fidel Castro’s rule.

In the case of Israel, American Jewish opinion isn’t the monolith that many assume. A 2008 survey by the American Jewish Committee asked Jews what issue they most wanted presidential candidates to discuss. Most cited the economy; only 3 percent said Israel. There’s also some evidence that young American Jews are growing disenchanted as Israeli society turns rightward. (Palestinian extremism feeds Israeli extremism, which feeds Palestinian extremism, which feeds. ...)

“What happens as Israel continues to become more religious and conservative, more isolated internationally and less democratic domestically?” Ben-Ami writes. “What happens to the relationship between American Jews and Israel as the face of Israel shifts from that of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to that of the national religious settlers and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis?”

To put it another way: When Glenn Beck becomes the best friend of Israel’s government and is invited to speak to the Knesset, what do liberals do? Some withdraw. Others join leftist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports divestment campaigns against companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories.

(Whenever I write about Israel, I get accused of double standards because I don’t spill as much ink denouncing worse abuses by, say, Syria. I plead guilty. I demand more of Israel partly because my tax dollars supply arms and aid to Israel. I hold democratic allies like Israel to a higher standard — just as I do the U.S.)

With the Arab Spring, the United States has a chance for a new beginning in the region. But that will require Washington to adopt a more balanced policy. Maybe, just maybe, J Street will help create the political space to enable that to happen.


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