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Chief Jewish Lobbyist: 'U.S. Congressmen live in fear of pro-Israeli intimidation'

William Kristol,
head of right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel, stuns debate audience
in New York: 'I agree with Obama’s Israel policies to a considerable

Chemi Shalev

May.16, 2012
3:07 PM

Many American senators and congressmen “keep quiet” and refrain from
criticizing Israeli policies because they “live in fear” and are
“intimidated” by pro-Israeli groups such as the Emergency Committee for
Israel (ECI), according to J Street founder and President Jeremy

Ben-Ami’s bald assertion came during a debate with Weekly Standard
editor Bill Kristol, a director of ECI, held on Tuesday night at
Manhattan’s palatial B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue and moderated by Jane
Eisner, the editor of the Forward. Ben Ami said that because of
accusatory ECI ads in the New York Times and other media outlets,
members of Congress are afraid of being branded as anti-Israel and are
deterred by the “ramifications” of voicing open criticism of Israeli

It was a rare moment of tension in an otherwise civil and even friendly
debate, which pitted representatives of the two diametrically opposed
poles of the current Jewish debate on Israel – the controversial lobby J
Street on the left and the no-less contentious Emergency Committee on
the right. The crowd of 700-800, mainly from Manhattan’s Upper West
Side, clearly favored Ben Ami’s positions though they were obviously
pleased by Kristol’s agreement to debate him.

Another reason for the amicable nature of the debate was that Kristol
“didn’t supply the goods," as Israelis would put it. He voiced
surprisingly moderate positions about President Obama and about the
creation of a Palestinian state, which seemed completely at odds with
the harsh tone of ECI advertisements and especially of its popular 30
minute television film “Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel.”

While the film depicts Obama’s attitude toward Israel as “alarming” and
“damaging to the relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, Kristol
told the audience that Obama had, in fact, “moved to the center” on both
Iran and the peace process, and that his policies today resemble those
of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

And while the ECI committee has run billboard campaigns describing
Obama as “not pro-Israel," Kristol told the audience that the president
had evolved considerably between his 2009 Cairo speech and his 2012
AIPAC speech, and that “the difference” between Obama and Republican
candidate Mitt Romney on issues relating to Iran and Israel “is not that

“I am happy to agree with Obama to a considerable degree,” said
Kristol, one of America’s most well-known conservative commentators. He
added that he does not expect Israel to be “that great an issue” in the
upcoming November elections.

Nonetheless, Kristol elicited howls of protest from the audience when
he predicted that the next U.S. secretary of state in a “Romney
administration” would be former Democratic vice presidential nominee
Senator Joe Lieberman. Ben-Ami wryly noted, “Israel already has a
Lieberman as foreign minister.”

Ben-Ami also seemed to be reciprocating Kristol’s conciliatory tone
towards Obama by commending Romney’s refusal to emulate his Republican
rivals during the primaries and "pander” on the issue of the transfer of
the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He said that Romney’s attitude toward
the peace process did not seem to rule out an active U.S. role in
advancing the peace process.

Kristol rejected Ben-Ami’s call for the U.S. president to “lay down the
parameters” of a peace deal – 1967 borders with modifications,
Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and the Palestinians, no right
of return and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Kristol said that it
was not the business of America to “impose” a peace deal on Israel and
the Palestinians nor was it Washington’s duty to “call Israel’s bluff”
and to expose its obstinacy, if it exists, to the outside world.

Nonetheless, Kristol surprised many in the audience by voicing clear
support for a Palestinian state, saying, “I would be very happy if there
was a Palestinian state”. He rejected Ben-Ami’s predictions of a
one-state future in which the Palestinians would demand the principle of
“one man one vote," saying that Israel has ruled the occupied
territories for over 45 years and that the indefinite maintenance of the
current status quo “is also an option."

Ben-Ami, who deals with the Israeli-Palestinian issue seven days a
week, was clearly better informed on the details of the issues than
Kristol, who is a major player in the overall Republican agenda. Kristol
repeatedly cited his own ignorance in order to dodge open disagreements
with Ben-Ami, conceding that he doesn’t know much about the blockade of
Gaza, that he is not aware of the details of Israeli settlement
activities in the West Bank and that he is incapable of judging whether
Israeli democracy and the rule of law are indeed endangered by the
government’s refusal to carry out High Court orders to evacuate the
settlements at Migron and at the Ulpana sector of Beit-El, as Ben-Ami

But, he protested, “This is what American Jews have to do? Criticize
the level of democracy and the rule of law in Israel? It is certainly
better than in any other country in the Middle East and in other parts
of the world.” Ben-Ami drew enthusiastic support from the audience when
he retorted that large parts of the American Jewish community “won’t
stand for” Kristol’s "Israel right or wrong” attitude.

Kristol said that he welcomed debate with J Street, but would not agree
to a dialogue with supporters of BDS – boycott, divestment and
sanctions – against Israel, while Ben Ami said that BDS supporters
should be engaged, despite his disagreement with their positions. He
draws the line, he added, at having a dialogue with people who advocate
the destruction of the Jewish state.

Kristol then went so far as to actually praise Ben-Ami’s achievements
in building the J Street organization, but added that it has no real
influence on the Obama administration. “I hope J Street continues to
flourish and to have no effect on policy,” he said and was rewarded with
the audience’s appreciative laughter.

The Ben-Ami - Kristol debate, coming on the heels of a similar debate
held two weeks ago between controversial author Peter Beinart and the
conservative Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis at Columbia University,
appears to signal an attempt by the Jewish community – at least in New
York - to create an ongoing dialogue between its warring “factions” and
to arrest the polarization of the community.

The debates may also herald an end to attempts to ostracize
organizations such as J Street and viewpoints like those espoused by
Beinart, and to recognize the legitimacy of their hitherto shunned
left-wing views.

As an Israeli observer, I must admit I found myself envious of the
ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct such a
potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of mutual
respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may no longer be

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Added: May-17-2012 Occurred On: May-17-2012
By: ElegantDecline
World News, Other Middle East
Tags: Israel, US, Lobby, Corruption
Location: Washington, District of Columbia, United States (load item map)
Views: 1915 | Comments: 83 | Votes: 1 | Favorites: 1 | Shared: 0 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 2
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