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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Town Hall Conference Call with Jeremy Ben-AmiThe 110th Congress and the Israeli Palestinian Conflict: A Post-Election Analysis
On November 12, 2006, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who is currently Senior Vice President at Fenton Communications and has advised former President Bill Clinton on domestic policy and the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, spoke about the impact of the mid-term elections on the potential for renewed diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called for Jewish progressives to go on the ?offensive.? Below is the text of his address.
It is really a pleasure to take part in this conference call and really to take part in any Brit Tzedek activity. I have great admiration for the work you all are doing and just want to start by saying thank you for all the work that you do and for all the activists who are on the call. I thought I would take five to ten minutes since there are apparently a lot of questions already and open up with five initial thoughts about five different actors who are affected by the elections on Tuesday and then by all the events of the past five days. Specifically – the impact for the administration, for the Congress itself, for the political parties, for the mainstream Jewish organizations, and then for progressive Jews such as ourselves who believe in a two-state solution. And I will quickly run through those five actors and some of the implications and then head into question and answer after that.
Starting at the top with the administration, and all of you on the call undoubtedly know the absolute essential actors in foreign policy are the folks in the administration, much less so than in Congress, foreign policy has always traditionally been an area that is dominated by the executive branch. So the impact of the election itself is less significant if it would be if it were a presidential election that brought change in the White House. However, the fallout from the election has already been extremely important and that obviously was headlined by the departure of Donald Rumsfeld and the ascendancy of the Bush-One old guard coming back into the foreign policy picture, specifically James Baker and also Bob Gates through Gates’ connection through Brent Scowcroft. All of those people are associated with a time and an era in American foreign policy when we did still believe in diplomacy and still believed in the role of the United States as a critical diplomatic actor. And we all know that the thing that has been missing for the last six years from American foreign policy in the Middle East, has been American leadership attempting to help to broker and bring about a settlement. We can only hope that one of the most significant impacts of the elections and the essential rejection of Bush-Two foreign policy is that the return of this moderate, or let’s say moderate for the sake of argument, wing of the Republican party may be the opening to again play a role in the Middle East and understand the absolute critical role that reaching a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians could play in the larger Middle East quagmire that the guys are now trying to extract Bush junior from. As they seek to find regional support for some exit strategy from Iraq the regional players that they are going to turn to will have to look for something in return and that could very well be movement on the Israel-Palestinian front. So I lead with this point even though the call is about the 110th Congress because when it comes right down to it the absolute essential actor in all of this is going to be the executive branch and the president and all of his folks and so that to me is item number one on the list of the consequences of Tuesday.
Item two, I’m sure, is the Congress. Diane and I were in a lunch where we heard this from a couple of other people and I think it really is the most interesting thing – that is the irony of the results, which I assume most people on this call are very happy about with the ascendancy of Democrats to both houses of Congress. The irony for those of us who care deeply about this particular issue is that we may find ourselves facing a Congress led by Democrats that may try to outflank the executive branch, the Republicans in the executive branch, to the right on this issue. And while the president may look, and this is speculative, to try and do something on this front and move negotiations forward, Democrats in Congress may well be playing a leadership role in putting up barriers and passing what may well be meaningless but still not helpful resolutions or sign-on letters or other actions that will be following the usual line blindly “pro-Israel” types of action. And that is going to be a very strange situation for all of us as we see Tom Lantos as the head of the international relations committee on the one hand, and moderates like Chafee gone on the Senate foreign relations committee. So its going to be a very interesting mode for all of us and its going to be quite a challenge to make sure that those Democratic members, particularly Jewish Democrats who are at the top of the hierarchy of the international relations committee on the House side – Ackerman, Wexler, Berman, Lantos – four out of the top six Democratic members on the international relations committee are Jewish Democrats and they need to hear from us, from Brit Tzedek and from all of us who work on these issues and that is going to be essential. That’s the second real impact…is in terms of Congress, less positive for us than the administration, there’s much more work and much more important work for us to do.
Third, the impact on the political parties themselves. There was a very interesting dynamic leading into the election which I assume everybody on this call was witness to, which was the Republican Jewish committee consistently putting forward ads in Jewish papers and putting forward public statements that were questioning the commitment of the Democratic party to Israel, and trying to attract Jewish voters as they have for six years by questioning the commitment of Democrats, whether they went after groups like Move On or whether they went after particular members or statements, they were consistently trying to get the Jewish vote to shift by appealing to the Israel issue. This paid no dividends whatsoever. I’m sure, again, that everyone is aware that 87% of the Jewish vote went to Democrats according to the polling that has been released, which I believe is a ten-percentage point increase for the Democrats over 2004 and marks one of the high points that the Democrats have ever achieved in the Jewish vote. So for the Republican party there has been absolutely no payoff in their attempt to try to attract Jews by being blindly and insistently pro-Israel and continually attacking the Democrats on their loyalty to Israel. That tactic is pretty much dead because it didn’t work and will now be no longer possible if the first thing I talked about does come to pass, which is the administration’s possible new direction of diplomacy and a two state solution. So we are back to trying to convince the Democrats that they can relax a little bit on this issue, that they can take it easy, that they do not run any risk of being seen by the Jewish community as not being pro-Israel and in fact they can begin to define pro-Israel in the way we define pro-Israel which is that the best thing for Israel’s security is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and have a two-state solution. So that’s it for the political parties.
Fourth, for the mainstream Jewish groups, it’s a bit of a rebuke for AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee that essentially constitute the Jewish right, I would call them at this point, I wouldn’t even call them mainstream Jewish groups, but the Jewish right really has to mend some fences. They have almost been overtly partisan in some cases and have really had to try to back-peddle from overtly Republican places where they’ve been to try and reestablish bridges to Democratic leaders. Their power over the Democrats certainly is great as ever but they have been exposed over the last six years as partially partisan, if not overtly partisan. That will have some lingering impact on Democrats and I think will result in an opening for some of us as we go to Democratic members of Congress over the next few months and into the next year with our messages about again what it means to be pro-Israel.So that leaves with the fifth impact, and that is with the Jewish left. And again I prefer to think of this as the Jewish mainstream but I’ll limit it to ‘progressive Jewish organizations.’ I think we are in a strange position on a number of fronts. On the first front we need to recognize that we may well be supporting what a new Bush administration starts to do. And that will be awkward for all of us who have other partisan leanings but may be in a strange position if they do decide to go down the diplomatic route of providing that support. The second awkward position will be if the Democratic Congress tries to block that or tries to stand in its way. We will essentially be supporting a Republican led move in the direction of diplomacy and going against a Democratic Congress that will be, potentially again, trying to stand up with a more knee-jerk view of the situation. And the third front, in terms of the mainstream Jewish community, I think we need to go on the offensive. I think that is my final point. In terms of where we are – we are generally viewing ourselves in a defensive position, the ones who are under attack as not being pro-Israel and not having real Zionist credentials, and we can find ourselves in a defensive position because of resources and politics. I think it’s time for us to be on the offensive and we need to begin to point out where these guys have been, what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been supporting, because in fact we are the group that is speaking for the 87% of Jews who voted for Democrats, who are pro-Israel, who are pro-peace and against they Iraq war, and all of the things that a progressive person is and at least where the Jewish community ended up in this election. So I think we can go on the offensive, put some of the other groups on the defense and I think again, that’s a strange position for us but this election really turned things on its head, and I think it is very interesting and potentially a moment of opportunity. And so that is my opening thoughts and maybe we can go to some questions and answers.
Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.