Joel Beinin on September 29, 2014
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with congressional leaders after addressing a joint session of Congress in May, 2011. (Photo: Chet Susslin) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with congressional leaders after addressing a joint session of Congress in May, 2011. (Photo: Chet Susslin)
In that conflict, Israel, in collusion with France and Britain, attacked Egypt and occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. President Eisenhower demanded that Israel withdraw from those territories and sought to impose sanctions if it did not. In terms that sound positively naïve today, Eisenhower asked, “Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?” Lyndon B. Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, and Minority Leader William F. Knowland strenuously opposed the president’s policy. Eisenhower rebuked them, saying, “America has either one voice or none, and that voice is the voice of the President – whether everybody agrees with him or not.”  Israel resisted for several months, and finally, under U.S. and Soviet pressure, withdrew.
Since then, Congress has consistently, and often more successfully, obstructed Palestinian-Israeli peace, in both symbolic and material ways. Most egregiously, it annually votes, with only scattered nays, to provide Israel with some $3 billion in military aid. During Operation Protective Edge – Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in July-August 2014 – the Senate, by unanimous consent, adopted Resolution 498 announcing that, “The United States firmly and resolutely stands with Israel.” This extraordinary statement obliterates any distinction between the interests of Israel and those of the United States. On August 14, before leaving for recess, the House voted an additional $225 million in aid for Israel. The Senate had unanimously adopted the measure two weeks earlier.
Robert Naiman’s Truthout op-ed, “Attacking J Street Won’t Bring Justice for Palestinians” is based on the fundamentally flawed premise that appealing to Congress can bring about a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Naiman is impatient with those who argue that, “because of its conduct during the recent Gaza war, J Street should die and be supplanted by Jewish Voice for Peace.” He does not identify anyone who has actually posed the issue in these terms, and I am not aware of anyone who has. It is not the stated policy of JVP.
Naiman goes on to criticize JVP for not engaging with Congress effectively. But his “explanations” for this supposed “failure” are all false. JVP does not ignore Congress because it is based in California; it is a national organization with 65 chapters and offices in Oakland, CA and New York. JVP does not underestimate the importance of engaging with Congress because of its membership in the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Many JVPers have lobbied members of Congress for years. The San Francisco Bay Area has a longstanding relationship with Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), although it cannot claim to have moved her much on this issue. What is the evidence for the claim that some JVPers “seem to have an existential hatred of J Street”? Is Naiman qualified to render a psychological diagnosis? J Street has consistently lined up with the American Jewish establishment to exclude JVP. Has that in any way undermined joint action on occasions when it might be possible?
The issue is not, as Naiman poses it, whether J Street or JVP is “more progressive.” JVP opposed Operation Protective Edge. J Street supported it. Was there any basis for collaboration between the two organizations in the summer of 2014?
If J Street’s influence wanes, it will be because its strategy has failed. After six years, its congressional lobbying has resulted in zero concrete results. Despite J Street’s vigorous supported for a Democratic president who entered office verbally committed to Israel-Palestine peacemaking, congressional obstruction has become more obdurate. During his May 2011 visit to Washington Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu testily rejected President Obama’s position that the 1967 borders should be the basis of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Despite his insulting public dismissal of the president’s views, behavior, Netanyahu went on to receive 29 standing ovations during his address to a joint session of Congress.
Given this history, counting on Congress to make a positive contribution to Palestinian-Israeli peace without changing anything else fits Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The point is not that we should ignore Congress, but that we should understand that Congress will likely be one of the last institutions to move on this issue. The way to get Congress to move is to emphasize a grassroots movement building strategy to change the balance of forces so that Congress will feel compelled to pay attention. Attempting to influence Congress without sufficient street heat is a proven failure.
1 Robert Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 64-66.
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