J Street wants to be big. It wants to be the vanguard of change in Israel. It wants to create the political base for the two-state solution in the United States. It wants to educate the American people in the contours of partition. It wants to have the ear of the administration and Congress and the Senate. It wants to change what it means to be pro-Israel in a country where the conversation as been dominated by AIPAC.
But what is J Street, really? Is its purpose to be for the left what AIPAC is for the right, an effective lobbying organization with a clear set of principles? Or, does it wish to be something more amorphous and without shape, a discussion forum where like-minded individuals can get together and debate, an umbrella under which they can shelter on college campuses?
Their conferences have the atmosphere of the latter, particularly in the sessions away from the main hall. Yet J Street’s leadership, in particular its president Jeremy Ben-Ami, wishes for something like the former. With the launch of the 2 Campaign, J Street is seeking to codify and make public a very specific vision for the future of the region based upon the premise of two states for two peoples, including the division of Jerusalem and the resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis largely outside of the future borders of the State of Israel.
In addition, J Street’s concerted lobbying efforts this year centered on a Senate resolution that called upon representatives to stand with the Secretary of State in his efforts to advance the peace process. J Street’s relationship with the administration is growing ever stronger, with the appearance of Joe Biden at the conference on Monday speaking to the ways in which J Street is operating in the corridors of power these days, in particular starting to play the money game successfully.
But what makes AIPAC distinctive is the way in which the views of the base do not clash, in public forums at least, with the public positions of the organization. This is not to say that within its tent, AIPAC does not contain members from the fringes of the political debate. Members of AIPAC include those who would favor a one-state solution of Israeli annexation and would deny the Palestinian right to self-determination.
What AIPAC does fruitfully, however, is work from certain first principles—Israel’s right to exist; Israel’s security as sacrosanct; the US-Israel relationship as unbreakable—that all AIPAC members share, which have helped make AIPAC valuable to Israel and helped them be influential at home. AIPAC will not take a position on an issue publicly unless it believes a consensus within the movement would support it, hence why it does not speak much about the two-state solution.
In pushing the 2 Campaign, in advancing specific positions on which a consensus does not yet exist, have Ben-Ami and the J Street hierarchy overestimated the willingness of their base to be led? How this question resolves itself, as it will over the coming year as the peace process advances and the 2 Campaign is rolled out, will help indicate the future of J Street.