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What presidential wannabes said at J Street


November 15, 2019

Taking a turn on J Street

J Street convened its eighth annual conference this week, its 11th year of existence. The gathering attracted 4,000 activists and marked a major turning point in how Democrats treat Israel: Withholding aid to pressure the Jewish state to comply with policy is now an idea that is very much on the table.

More accurately, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group delivered its partial OK to action that’s already well underway because of pressure from groups sharply critical of Israel, including IfNotNow.

Plenty of top Democrats were at the conference—and seemed to be on board.

Here are some takeaways:

J Street now (sort of) open to leveraging aid: The group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, spoke Sunday night at the opening plenary and offered this blistering line at the Washington Convention Center: “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check.”

But the next morning, talking to reporters, Ben-Ami added parameters to the pledge: He was referring to precedent and existing laws. J Street was not advocating new legislation to restrict aid to Israel.

And he was less conclusive than the “blank check” line had made it seem. Ben-Ami clarified that the leveraging aid idea should be considered, stopping short of giving it a full endorsement.

“If it is against American policy to expand settlements, shouldn’t we be inquiring whether any of our dollars are going there?” he asked.

Ben-Ami said assistance to Israel could be checked against, for instance, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires U.S. arms sales to be used strictly for self-defense.

He also said the idea of using aid to pressure was not new. A number of presidents have withheld portions of loan guarantees commensurate with Israel’s spending on settlements, a mechanism that is enshrined in law.

Even with these caveats, J Street’s embrace of leveraging aid was notable: Throughout its decade of existence, the group has been hands-off on aid to Israel, instead advocating for diplomatic means to advance a two-state solution.

Which presidential wannabes said what: Of the 10 Democrats running for president who delivered remarks to J Street, four were opposed to the leveraging aid idea: Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.

Three backed it, to varying degrees of specificity: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Three avoided any comment: Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, self-help writer Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were among the five candidates who submitted video messages and were not subjected to the live grilling carried out by Obama administration alumni Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes.

Biden vs. Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg: Three of the four candidates leading in the polls—Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren—favor “leveraging aid.” Only Biden, forcefully (and unsolicited, in his video) stood up for aid unequivocally.

Sanders and Buttigieg in person and Warren via video delivered the same message: You don’t get something for nothing.

Sanders put it this way: “I would use the leverage, $3.8 billion is a lot of money and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or any government.”

Only Biden seemed forceful in advocating for maintaining assistance without strings.

“Israelis wake up every morning facing an existential threat,” he said in his message. “That’s why we always have to be adamant that Israel must be able to defend itself.”

Klobuchar initially declined to answer on aid. But then she pointed to what she described as President Donald Trump’s retreat from the Middle East and the dangers it has engendered, and said that “is why I am so wedded right now to make sure we are actually continuing the aid.”

Castro noted that Israel was in throes of changing governments and he would prefer to focus on the prospect of Israel not being led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has curried disfavor among Democrats for his role in stoking tensions with the Obama administration and befriending Trump.

Where was Kamala? Of the eight candidates who did not show or send video, Sen. Kamala Harris of California stands out because of her closeness to her home state’s Jewish community and the pro-Israel crowd.

“We definitely invited Senator Harris to attend and to send a video, and had very good discussions with her team about both,” Logan Bayroff, J Street’s spokesman, told me. “Ultimately her scheduling did not work out to join us in Washington, and I believe her team was interested in sending a video but was not able to produce it in time for the event.”

The answer may lie in the chaos reported in her campaign: Her support, once robust, is flagging.

Schumer’s story: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told a riveting story that I had not heard in years of covering him at Jewish events, where his stories tend to be jokey. His great- grandfather had 18 children in a shtetl on the border of modern Ukraine and Slovakia. His grandfather was among the three youngest sent to America. Most of the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Nazis gunned down 31 of them after gathering them on the porch of the ancestral home.

Remembering the Pittsburgh shooting: It was one of the youngest candidates, Castro, at 45, who unprompted brought up Israel’s status as a refuge. “Yesterday was the anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre and it was also a very powerful reminder of why Israel exists in the first place as a place of refuge, safety... for the Jewish people,” he said to applause. (Conference speakers on several occasions marked the synagogue attack, the worst ever on U.S. Jews.)


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