J Street Is Facing New Pressure to Back Conditioning Aid to Israel

If J Street puts its lobbying operation to work, a majority of the Democratic caucus could support conditioning aid in response to Israeli annexation.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - JUNE 23: Demonstrators wear masks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz as they protest against the Israeli goverment's plan to annex parts of the West Bank on June 23, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who formed a coalition government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to break an electoral stalemate, has signaled he will not oppose the prime minister's unilateral move.  (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
Demonstrators wear masks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz as they protest against the Israeli government’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank on June 23, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

More than 1,000 former and current members of J Street U, the youth wing of the liberal, pro-Israel organization J Street, are calling on the group’s leadership to get behind a legislative effort to condition funding of the state of Israel if it goes forward with illegally annexing Palestinian territory, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to do.

The J Street U members, along with former staff, have signed on to a letter to the group’s leadership which describes the response to Israel’s impending annexation as “a decisive test for the progressive movement.” The alumni who signed the letter include 28 former J Street U staffers, over a dozen rabbis and rabbinical students, former Obama White House staffers, and congressional and campaign staffers.

“Israel’s leaders are proceeding with annexation because they expect no real consequence for doing so,” the letter reads. “Now, as they threaten to make that control permanent, most American leaders and institutions have expressed outrage, but few have indicated that moving forward will result in material consequences: a tangible erosion of American monetary support.”

“We ask J Street to stand in strong support of any legislation that will reduce American assistance to Israel if it decides, once and for all, to annex the West Bank,” it concludes.

Netanyahu has said he would begin to annex one third of the already occupied West Bank as early as Wednesday of this week — a move that would be in line with President Donald Trump’s one-sided plan for the region. The threat drew pushback in Congress in the form of a letter signed last week by 191 Democrats, expressing opposition to annexation but promising no specific consequences. A subsequent letter, spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pushes further, saying that lawmakers should “pursue legislation that conditions the $3.8 billion in U.S. military funding to Israel to ensure that U.S. taxpayers are not supporting annexation in any way.” Ocasio-Cortez won a resounding reelection victory in her Democratic primary last week, just as New York Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lost decisively to principal Jamaal Bowman, despite millions spent by pro-Israel big-money groups.

On Monday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tweeted its opposition to the letter Ocasio-Cortez was circulating, which had also been signed by Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Betty McCollum, and Pramila Jayapal. By Tuesday morning, Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Raul Grijalva, André Carson, Nydia Velázquez, Bobby Rush, Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, and Danny Davis had signed on, as had Sen. Bernie Sanders, Politico reported.

Tlaib, in a statement, said Israel’s planned annexation would “formalize an apartheid system” funded by U.S. tax dollars. “The implementation of that system would mean our tax dollars — instead of being used to fund health care or replace lead water pipes — would be used to perpetuate and entrench human rights violations in Palestine, including limitations on freedom of movement, further expansion of illegal land theft, home demolitions, and cutting off access to critical resources like clean water. We are coming together as progressive lawmakers today to clearly say: enough is enough.”

Though just 13 members of Congress have so far signed the letter, compared to the 191 who expressed opposition to annexation, there could potentially be many more willing to come forward. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, signed the larger letter but did not join Ocasio-Cortez’s. “If PM Netanyahu continues down the path of planned unilateral annexation on July 1 — breaking international law and violating human rights of Palestinians — Congress must put conditions on U.S. funding to Israel to demonstrate opposition to annexation and the violation of Palestinian human rights,” Pocan said in a statement provided Tuesday to The Intercept.

Sanders is drafting legislation that ties Israel’s ongoing annexation activity to funding, sources familiar with his effort said. A companion House measure is also being drafted.

A congressional aide involved in the effort said that the Ocasio-Cortez letter and the legislation do not hinge on an upcoming Knesset vote on legal annexation, but tie aid to the ongoing annexation activity of the Israeli government. “It’s important to note that de jure annexation isn’t the only trigger for conditioning aid,” said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, given the early nature of the conversations. “As the letter states, there are also the policies and practices that have been laying the groundwork for de facto annexation for years: land expropriation, the expulsion of Palestinian families, the demolition of people’s homes, and the building of settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and throughout the Palestinian territories. American taxpayers shouldn’t be enabling violations of human rights anywhere, and Israel should be no exception.”

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American analyst, told The Intercept, “I think anybody who claims to oppose annexation, Israeli settlement building, or other Israeli violations of human rights and International law, but refuses to support holding them accountable when they do those things, actually doesn’t oppose them at all and is just being an apologist for them.”

Whether the legislation moves beyond that small group and becomes a mainstream public Democratic position has much to do with the decision J Street, and particularly its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, is now confronted with. Ben-Ami founded J Street in 2008, creating a liberal counterpoint to AIPAC — giving cover to Democrats to buck Israel on policy issues, most notably former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal. The effort to condition aid based on annexation gives J Street another opportunity to wield its influence on Capitol Hill, though one its founder is reluctant to take. If it remains on the sidelines while issuing sternly worded statements, the effort is unlikely to gain enough momentum to change the reality on the ground in Israel. If J Street gives its blessing and puts its formidable lobbying operation to work, however, a sizable majority of the Democratic caucus could get on board.

Last week, J Street applauded a letter signed by the majority of the House Democratic Caucus opposing the forthcoming unilateral Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank. Neither J Street’s statement, nor the underlying congressional letter, however, had much teeth. If Israel were to move forward with its plans, they stated, it would harm the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — but did not tie their opposition to any political consequences.

On a leadership conference call Monday, Ben-Ami talked briefly about the protest from J Street U members, arguing that it was a reflection of the younger, more idealistic activists who make up that organization. He said that J Street as an organization needed to “calibrate more finely than activists who just want to stand for principle,” according to notes of his remarks shared with The Intercept. (Many of those alumni are now well into their 30s, and include former staff, who are older still.)


The Wax and Wane of J Street’s Influence Over U.S.-Israel Policy

The issue of conditioning U.S. aid to Israel has long divided J Street and J Street U, which is known to support policies well to the left of those supported by its parent organization. In early 2019, nearly three dozen current and former members of J Street U’s board presented a letter to Ben-Ami and the J Street board, calling on the organization to take “bold action … that responds appropriately to this political moment” by “imposing actual, tangible costs” for Israel’s occupation policies. The signatories argued that J Street could afford to take a more leftward stance on the U.S.-Israel alliance without alienating supporters, as the Democratic electorate has moved left on the issue in recent years.

“In recent years, J Street has increasingly played a role of working to prevent a critical mass for accountability from forming among liberals and progressives, which only ends up carrying water for AIPAC, whether they want to acknowledge it or not,” said Munayyer.

When The Intercept asked Ben-Ami about that internal debate last year, he pointed to comments he made last April, after Netanyahu promised to annex Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. “What I said is that Israel going down the road of annexation puts all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship on the table and opens up a really serious discussion about what should happen,” Ben-Ami said in an interview. “That includes the question of to what purposes is the aid that the United States provides to the state of Israel put, and that is a really important conversation.”

In subsequent statements, Ben-Ami distanced himself and the organization from the policy, even as Democratic presidential candidates took a range of positions to the left of J Street’s.

In a statement accompanying their letter, the J Street U alumni acknowledged that J Street has “willingly” disagreed with the Israeli position on annexation, but noted that the organization “has stopped short of advocating for or supporting legislation that would reduce aid to Israel — which relies on U.S. taxpayer money for military assistance — should its government move forward with annexation.”

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