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J Street Aims to Advocate Different Perspective from AIPAC

Aired November 20, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, U.S. policy towards Israel. We'll examine the reality and the myths of the pro-Israel lobby, and we'll ask whether a different kind of debate may begin to take place in Washington.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour. And welcome to our program.

It's a relationship that dates back to the founding of the state of Israel six decades ago, the Jewish community here in the United States advocating in Washington on behalf of Israel.

For many years, discussions about U.S. policy towards Israel focused on AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's an influential lobbying group generally linked to the conservative wing of Israeli politics. But now a new Jewish lobby group has come to the fore, J Street. It promises a different approach to the Middle East conflict.


JEREMY BEN-AMI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, J STREET: We rally tonight around this simple premise: that the security and the very future of the Jewish democratic homeland in Israel is at risk without an end to the conflict and to the occupation of the Palestinian people.


AMANPOUR: Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, joins me now in the studio. And we are also joined by David Harris, the executive director of the AJC, the American Jewish Committee. It's an advocacy group that was formed in 1906 to safeguard Jewish communities around the world.

We did invite AIPAC to participate, but through a spokesman, the organization declined to join us, but the AIPAC spokesman said that his group did share a perspective with the AJC.

So thank you both, gentlemen, for coming here.

Let me ask you first, you're talking about safeguarding the democratic state of Israel. Surely all the Jewish pro-Israel lobby groups share the same goal. Why now a different and a new one?

BEN-AMI: Well, I think that the sense of urgency has never been greater to address the single greatest threat that Israel faces to its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

AMANPOUR: Which is?

BEN-AMI: Which is the demographic reality that, within a matter of years, there will be more non-Jews than Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And at that point, Israel really can no longer remain both Jewish and democratic. Therefore, to avoid that, we have to find some way to get to a two-state solution and to do it as quickly as possible.

AMANPOUR: And why is that different than what the AJC or AIPAC advocates? How is it different?

DAVID HARRIS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AJC: I think what's similar is the fact that we support a two-state settlement and we understand the urgency of the search for peace. I think where we differ, though, is in the belief that Israel, as a democratic nation, has the capacity within its borders to make the decisions that will ultimately determine its future.


AMANPOUR: In other words, no interference in what the government says?

HARRIS: No, I would say, rather, that the country itself, through a lively press, a parliament, and a government, will make its own decisions about where its borders are to be and how they should be drawn.

AMANPOUR: Why is there such a hornet's nest that started now because J Street has opened up its storefront in Washington? Why is AIPAC so angry that it wouldn't even come and join us? Let me just...

HARRIS: Well, I have enough trouble representing AJC.

AMANPOUR: Let me just put up the quote and see whether you agree since they said you shared a perspective.

So when we called and we asked Josh Block, who is the spokesman, he basically said, of J Street -- and we have it on our wall here -- "They are not part of what I would call the pro-Israel lobby. J Street is fringe and far to the left. And thus, you" -- that means us -- "should pair them with someone far to the right." He also went on to say that, "They believe in imposing their views on Israel, and they are an ideological organization."

That's what they say about you. Do you think that J Street is far to the left, that it's an ideological organization that's seeking to impose false views or false policies on Israel?

HARRIS: Well, Christiane, first of all, I'm here.

AMANPOUR: Which is good.

HARRIS: Thank you.

Secondly, I believe in a big Jewish tent. You know, there's the old joke, you know, one Jew, two opinions, and two Jews, three synagogues, this kind of thing. So we are not a monolithic community. We're going to have a range of views.

Having said that, there are going to be policy and philosophical differences. I mean, there are issues on which perhaps we agree, and there are issues on which we're going to disagree on policy and on philosophy. As I said, I think the difference is that we defer to the democratically elected government in Israel of the day, because the ultimate consequences of the decisions to be made will be borne by the Israeli people.

AMANPOUR: Now, obviously, the criticisms about AIPAC and AJC and others are that you're more concerned, almost, about the government of the day in Israel than about the American government and its policies and priorities and national security interests, that, in other words, what's good for Israel is good for America, rather than vice versa.

HARRIS: I must say, I don't see it quite that way. I think the U.S.- Israel relationship is critically important to both nations. And it's important, therefore, to keep the relationship on an even keel. That does not mean that the countries will agree on everything.

I know of no two countries, even the closest of allies, even the U.K. and the U.S., that will agree on everything. But on the fundamentals, our goal is to keep the two countries aligned because they share common goals and common values.

AMANPOUR: Jeremy, that's obviously a given, they share common goals, common values. The relationship between the United States and Israel, everyone in the world accepts, is a very, very close relationship. And yet, just this last week, the prime minister of Israel essentially had to skulk into the White House under cover of darkness. There was no press conference. What is going on, then, with this very close relationship?

BEN-AMI: Well, I think that there's been an eight-year period up until this current administration where the definition of what it means to be pro-Israel has simply been to ensure that you're moving in lockstep between the two countries. And I think what the president of the United States has said in the new administration is that we've just been through a period where there's been no gap and we've made no progress in achieving peace and bringing this conflict to an end.

This is a fundamental interest of Israel. It is a fundamental interest of the United States. It's a fundamental interest of all of the countries in the region and the Palestinian people, too.

AMANPOUR: What are you specifically proposing that's different?

BEN-AMI: Well, the most important thing is whether or not the U.S. will play an active role. I think the process by which we say talks in and of themselves are the end, are the goal, and it's good to have the parties talk and reach a conclusion, that hasn't worked. Sixteen years, and we've seen the parties unable themselves to reach a resolution. There's the need for help from the outside to resolve this conflict.

AMANPOUR: Are you talking about imposing?

BEN-AMI: I'm saying a very, very active leadership role, not only for the U.S., but also for the quartet, for the Europeans, for the U.N., for the Arab League, which has put on the table not simply an Israeli- Palestinian deal, but an Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace with the entirety of the Arab world.

HARRIS: Christiane, if I may, first of all, coming back to the use of the word "skulking" into the White House...

AMANPOUR: My word.

HARRIS: Your word, I know. It wouldn't be my word, I must tell you. I think the relationship is far better than it appears from the outside.

AMANPOUR: So why did that have to happen the other night?

HARRIS: Well, I don't know.

AMANPOUR: What is happening now?

HARRIS: But on the other hand, they met for nearly two hours. And President Obama's time is very valuable. Few leaders get to sit for two hours, as they did.


And that came just at the tail end of the most extensive U.S.-Israeli military exercises that had just been completed, and that came also after the U.S. had voted against the U.N.'s Goldstone report, in other words, standing with the Israeli government.

So we shouldn't conclude, therefore, that U.S.-Israeli relations are somehow rocky or in danger of falling apart. Far from it.

AMANPOUR: Do you think they're better now than they were, for instance, under President Bush?

HARRIS: They're different. The tonality is different. But I think the foundation remains the same.

And when we speak about the bilateral relationship, I think it remains rock solid. When we speak about the peace process, yes, there's a different approach. There are different tonalities.

But, you see, even in the Obama administration, and the way it's approached the peace process, it's jiggering its approach.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about settlements and the very categoric statement that President Obama made on settlements, that there had to be a total freeze as a precondition to restart negotiations.

HARRIS: For instance, I mean, you saw, first, Prime Minister Netanyahu reluctant to speak about a two-state settlement, but then over time expressed the words. You saw President Obama at first, quickly out of the starting gates, talking about the settlements issue. They're no longer talking about freeze, but rather restraint.

But then again, every new administration has to find its sea legs. Every new administration comes to the Middle East, and when they come to the Middle East, they realize there's no veneer process of advancement.

AMANPOUR: What do you see regarding the settlement and the particularly, some would say, aggressive Obama administration stance on a total freeze?

BEN-AMI: Well, I think the most important thing that's been a real difference in this administration from the prior one is the engagement from day one. The prior administration basically said, after the failures at Camp David of President Clinton, we're pulling back completely and we're just not going to do anything at all. And for seven years, there was no involvement at all.

We saw another intifada. We saw violence. We saw a real deterioration of the situation.

This administration came in and said, from day one, this is a fundamental U.S. interest. We must end this conflict for the sake of the United States, as well as for the sake of the parties. The appointment of George Mitchell, the engagement by the secretary of the state, and the president has been unprecedented...

AMANPOUR: And yet, it's gotten nowhere.

BEN-AMI: And yet, it hasn't made progress yet, but I think...

AMANPOUR: But you think it will?

BEN-AMI: I think this kind of sustained engagement and leadership, it's probably going to require even more direct presidential engagement. When he gets past the current set of domestic issues that he needs to deal with in the next few months, I hope to see the president travel to Israel. I hope to see him travel to the region and to become personally involved, because this is a matter of the utmost importance.

His national security adviser, Jim Jones, at our conference last week, said if he could tell the president to solve one problem in the world, it would be to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are so many echoes and ripples around the world.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, we're just going to go to a break. We'll come back and pick that right up, as well as other issues such as the one just raised, the Goldstone report. So stay with us.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): President George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, were trying to push Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians.

JAMES BAKER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive.

AMANPOUR: So the Bush administration took an unprecedented step: U.S. loan guarantees for housing in Israel would now come with strings attached.

BAKER: We will support our loan guarantees if there is a halt or an end to settlement activity.

AMANPOUR: Those were fighting words.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it. So...



AMANPOUR: I'm smiling, because that was former U.S. President George Bush, as you know, from our documentary, "God's Warriors." And David Harris said that he was one of those thousand lobbyists or so working against him at that time.

HARRIS: Against that one lonely little guy in the White House.

AMANPOUR: Well? Well? The majority...

BEN-AMI: And you won, I think.

AMANPOUR: They did, indeed. But how good was that for Israel or for the peace process, that you won?

BEN-AMI: Disastrous. I mean, it's a disaster. I mean, I'll let you answer it in a second, but...

AMANPOUR: No, you answer it. How...

BEN-AMI: The settlement enterprise is essentially the equivalent of a cancer eating away at the state of Israel. It's a disease that needed to be stopped early, and unfortunately it's now taking over the chances of Israel's survivor as a Jewish democratic state. And so I think that it is -- has been a mistake on the part of lobbyists in America who have tried to help Israel and facilitate the continued settlement expansion.

AMANPOUR: And is this the point of J Street? Is settlements the main point? What is the point?

BEN-AMI: The point is to secure a future for Israel as a Jewish and a democratic homeland. And that requires the creation of a Palestinian state.

AMANPOUR: And you've talked about a democracy, David. You've talked about Israel as a democracy.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: The majority of Israelis, as well as a majority of American Jews, do not believe in the expansion of settlements. So why is this so hard? Why were you one of the thousand lobbyists there beating up on George Bush?

HARRIS: Well, because, first of all, the main issue is one that we have to discuss, Christiane. Why has there been no peace agreement?

We're in 2009. Israel is 61 years old. And I believe firmly, profoundly that the reason is primarily because the Palestinians and the larger Arab world have not been able to recognize and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the region.

AMANPOUR: But you know what the Palestinian Authority did in Oslo. I mean, that was the whole point.

BEN-AMI: And the Arab League initiative. I mean, the whole purpose of the Arab initiative...


AMANPOUR: The real question is, has AIPAC, has AJC, have the traditional pro-Israel lobbies run their course? Is there, as some people say, a new generation, a younger generation, a post-Holocaust generation, maybe?

HARRIS: I don't think it's a generational issue, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: What do you think?

BEN-AMI: I do think there's a generational aspect, because I know we've had disagreements about this over...

AMANPOUR: But you don't?

HARRIS: There's no organization in the world, no Jewish organization, that has spent more time in the Arab world than AJC. We have spent time in at least 11 Arab countries. And when you consider that only two have diplomatic ties with Israel, then you understand where we're going.

The main question remains the question of Israel's legitimacy. And yes, there was an Arab peace initiative, but the fact of the matter is that it hasn't played itself out.

So when you come to the issue of settlements -- and I'm not here to defend settlements. Let's be clear. I said at the outset I believe in a two-state settlement and have for a long time. But I don't want to confuse the main issue with other issues.

When Prime Minister Sharon withdrew from Gaza, he withdrew the settlements, dismantled the settlements. He faced down his own people. And what happened? The consequence of withdrawing from Gaza was, what?

AMANPOUR: I want to raise the latest on Gaza, which is the Goldstone report, which has created another hornet's nest, not just in Israel, but amongst the Palestinians and in the United States. Listen to what I asked Judge Goldstone about him having to defend his process.


AMANPOUR: Are you having to defend your Jewishness?

JUSTICE RICHARD GOLDSTONE, HEAD, U.N. FACT-FINDING MISSION: Well, not too much. You know, there have been attacks from some of the extreme that have called me a self-hating Jew or -- and even anti-Semitic, which are obviously more than ridiculous allegations to make.


AMANPOUR: So there are two points on this. The first is, if the government and policies of Israel are criticized, does that necessarily mean that somebody is criticizing Jews or is being anti-Semitic?

BEN-AMI: Absolutely not. And I think that's one of the fundamental problems with the discussion in this country to date that we are trying to break through J Street, is the notion that to criticize the policy of the government of Israel is to somehow criticize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It is absolutely not equivalent. And the defensive reaction on the part of the traditional status quo lobbies that attack those who criticize by saying they are anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews or other negative stereotypes, they are actually worsening the long-term prospects for support for the state of Israel.

AMANPOUR: Isn't it time to get over this sort of basic criticism?

HARRIS: No, Christiane, because I think -- I think that's too easy a presentation of the issue.

AMANPOUR: But why? But why?

HARRIS: Because there are many people who criticize Israel, including many Jews, including many Israelis, where there is no accusation whatsoever of anti-Semitism. And therefore, to suggest that there is, is wrong. There are...

AMANPOUR: But it does raise its ugly head quite often.

HARRIS: But -- but in those cases where Israel is held to a different standard, where Israel's very legitimacy is called into question, where Israel is demonized, then perhaps something else is at work.


AMANPOUR: But let me ask you again about the report, then. Everybody knows the United States didn't want it to come up in the Security Council, et cetera, pressured the Palestinians not to do so. The Palestinians went along with it. Everybody agreed at the Human Rights Council. And then when the street heard about it, it became a problem.

So that puts Israel in a bind, puts the Palestinians in a bind, puts America in a bind, because the whole thing now is falling apart. So, in other words, what was the good part, the constructive part of that pressure on Goldstone and on the Goldstone report?

HARRIS: Well, I don't think it was a question of the pressure on the Goldstone report. I think what's important to understand is where it came from.

It came from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which authorized the investigation. One has to understand what the Human Rights Council is, Christiane. It's an organization in Geneva, 80 percent of whose resolutions have been targeted at Israel. And it was a resolution adopted by the council that prejudged Israel's guilt. That was the fundamental set of problems with the Goldstone...

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to ask Jeremy, because I think you agree that some of these international organizations are fundamentally against Israel.

BEN-AMI: Right, and I think it's really important to separate those two issues out, because I think it's too easy to avoid the substance of the report and the substance of the charges by simply falling back on the notion that it's the U.N. that's biased. The answer to this is that the state of Israel should start and conduct an independent, credible, legal investigation into what happened in Gaza.

It's done it in the past. It has taken that step with regard to Sabra and Shatila. It has looked at the origins of the second Lebanon war and what went wrong there.

That kind of investigation is what we expect from the state of Israel. I mean, that is what I have come to expect from them as a democracy and as a place where the rule of law is upheld.

AMANPOUR: Given the fact that now people are hoping that some peace process can get back on track, what can your organization do? Do you think it can have any affect on this process right now?

BEN-AMI: Well, I think what we aim to do is to open up political space in the United States so this discussion can take place in Washington. As I said before, the parties themselves, in our opinion, are simply not going to sit down at a table and work this out. And for those of us who care about Israel, that's a disaster.

So only with a serious American role at the table can this problem be solved. We believe we open up political space in order to allow American policymakers to do that.

HARRIS: There is no country in the world, Christiane, that seeks peace more than Israel, precisely because for 61 years, it has never had a single day of peace. It's almost impossible for others to understand that, firstly and secondly, the major breakthroughs in peace came about when Israel and its neighbors negotiated directly.

AMANPOUR: When the U.S. is totally involved, there is less war and more peace?

HARRIS: It can help, but it cannot be a substitute for the parties themselves. And as I said, the core issue remains, I believe, the question of Israel's very right to a place in the region.

BEN-AMI: And I would disagree. I think that the Arab nations, the Palestinian leadership have made it abundantly clear that they do accept the right of the state of Israel to exist, a state of the Jewish people alongside the Palestinian people. The most important thing that could happen right now is for Israel to take actual steps...

HARRIS: Jeremy, you saw the textbooks that are...

AMANPOUR: This conversation is going to have to continue another day.

HARRIS: If you saw the textbooks, you would realize that children are not being taught that today in too much of the Arab world. And that's the tragedy.

AMANPOUR: We'll continue this. Thank you very much, indeed, both of you.

And earlier, you did see a clip from "God's Warriors." To watch the film online, go to our Web site, And next, on our "Global Dispatch" series, we'll show different perspectives on the world: an Israeli and a Palestinian reconcile after tragedy. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script."


It's a story from our "Global Dispatch" series about two people, a Palestinian and an Israeli. It's about their shared hurt and their shared efforts to get beyond the pain.












AMANPOUR: Given the discussion that we've had this half-hour and the fact that the leaders, both Palestinians and the Israeli, are deadlocked over the peace process, it is so worth listening to the people on both sides.

And to submit a short film from your unique perspective, go to our Web site,, and click "Global Dispatch" to find out the details.

And that's our report for now. Thanks for watching. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.