By Rebecca Shabad - 03/04/14 06:00 AM EST
"Only Netanyahu can bring peace,” is plastered on billboards across Israel, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who saw them on a business trip he made there in February. “You know, I actually tend to agree with that,” Ben-Ami said of the slogan, in a recent interview with The Hill at his office at J Street.
To hear the president of an organization considered one of Washington’s more progressive pro-Israel advocacy groups agreeing with the billboard message was somewhat surprising, since J Street has often been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line policies.
He explained that Netanyahu is deeply trusted by Israelis and could be the one to achieve a two-state deal. Ben-Ami is, however, unsure whether Netanyahu has concluded that such a solution is essential for Israel’s survival.
“If he has, I really believe that he’s the one who can do this,” Ben-Ami said. “If he hasn’t, and if at the end of the day, he decides to walk away from all of this, it’s going to be a long time.”
Ben-Ami’s personal connections to Israel, as well as his experience in American politics, have led him to J Street.
His great-grandparents were part of the first aliyah, the initial wave of immigrants to Palestine who helped establish the Zionist movement. His father was one of the first children born in Tel Aviv. Ben-Ami lived in Israel from 1997-1999, after he worked as President Clinton’s deputy domestic policy adviser at the White House.
He also worked on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) 2004 presidential campaign and has been involved in politics in New York City, where he grew up.
When he returned from Israel, Ben-Ami said he was even more passionate about the disconnect that existed between “the political orthodoxy” in the U.S. and what was being debated in Israel. He began to discuss that divide with Jewish leaders in 2004, which paved the way for J Street.
“J Street is filling a vacuum,” he said.
The lobbying group meets with at least two-thirds of Congress each year — most of them Democrats. In this year’s midterm elections, J Street’s political action committee has endorsed 70 House incumbents, including two Republicans — Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.) and Ed Whitfield (Ky.). The PAC is also backing four House challengers and seven Senate candidates.
Despite the group’s growing connection to Congress, Netanyahu hasn’t met with J Street, but members of his cabinet have, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been playing a significant role in the peace talks steered by Secretary of State John Kerry.
To defend Kerry’s plan, Ben-Ami recently launched the “2 Campaign” for supporters of the two-state solution to voice their opinions at town halls around the United States. So far, two State Department officials; Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.); and Matt Nosanchuk, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, have attended these events.
Kerry has been working since July to help bridge a final two-state status deal by the end of April.
“I said this back in July … there’s no way you’re going to get a final status deal by April,” said Ben-Ami, adding that the creation of a framework agreement is more likely to happen within the next two months.
Ben-Ami predicts a final status deal can be struck before Obama and Kerry leave office in 2017.
The process could hit roadblocks though. A comprehensive peace deal could require both a change of government in Israel and be subject to a referendum vote by Israelis and Palestinians, Ben-Ami warned.
Israel would have to make concessions in the framework, he said, and will if the Palestinians concede the agreement will omit their ”right of return” and recognize Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The “right of return” is the position that Palestinian refugees can return to Israel.
“If the framework includes significant moves in that direction, then I think that the Israeli concessions that would match that would likely be around the shape of the border, the extent of settlements [in the West Bank] that would need to be evacuated and relocated,” Ben-Ami said, who adds Israel would also need to allow Palestinians to make East Jerusalem their nation’s capital.
J Street has made its positions known in a “very open line of communication” with the Netanyahu government, Ben-Ami said. The exchange developed after several years of working with Michael Oren, who just recently left his post as Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
“When he arrived initially, he and the government of Israel at the time were not enthusiastic about J Street and were not meeting with us. In the course of his three or four years here, he began to understand the Jewish community in the United States better,” Ben-Ami said of Oren.
Oren’s successor, Ron Dermer, elicited a vastly different reaction.
When asked what he thinks of Dermer, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu, Ben-Ami paused before responding.
“I hope Ambassador Dermer eventually comes to the same realization that Ambassador Oren came to — that it would be healthy for the state of Israel and the Jewish people to have an open dialogue and relationship,” he said.
Ben-Ami said he’s asked to speak with Dermer since he arrived to Washington in November, but they haven’t had a conversation yet.
“There are people within the political circle around the prime minister who don’t quite see the necessity of a dialogue and a relationship with those with whom they disagree. I think that’s wrong,” he said.
Netanyahu has maintained a much stronger relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and will speak to the pro-Israel group’s annual policy conference on Tuesday.
“I have the highest regard for what AIPAC has achieved in the 50-plus years that it’s been around,” Ben-Ami said.
But AIPAC and the “entirety of the American Jewish establishment,” he clarified, have failed to “provide a real political wind” to support efforts that try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Honestly, I do think that’s a failure,” he said.
For years, AIPAC was largely considered the most influential pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill. But that may have changed in recent months, as J Street weighed in on handling Iran’s nuclear program.
J Street advocated against advancing an Iran sanctions bill that would toughen existing and add new sanctions against Iran. Ben-Ami echoed White House pleas and told Congress to give diplomacy a chance as a coalition of leading nations consisting of the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany, made progress with the negotiation on Iran’s interim nuclear agreement.
Momentum to hold a vote on the bill has dissipated for now. Ben-Ami said he thinks J Street played “a role” in the lawmakers’ retreat.