U.S. Vice President Joe Biden(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Navigate to News section

Why Is Biden Speaking at J Street?

Just weeks after the group, unlike AIPAC, wouldn’t support a Syria strike

Lee Smith
September 18, 2013
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House has announced that Vice President Joe Biden will give the keynote address at J Street’s annual Washington conference. But—well, why?

Just last week the White House convinced itself, with all evidence to the contrary, that Vladimir Putin remains its partner. Sure, the Russian president called the secretary of state a liar, gave sanctuary to Edward Snowden, and repeatedly blocked UN resolutions against Bashar al-Assad while arming him, but when Moscow floats a totally unworkable proposal to help Obama rid the world of Assad’s chemical weapons, Putin turns out to be an OK guy.

Its hard not to see the same dynamic at work with J Street, which recently pulled a Putin on Obama. Just two weeks ago, J Street withheld support for Obama’s plan strike Assad, but now they smell like roses.

At the time, even J Street supporters thought it was a move destined to make the outfit irrelevant. “If it is true that @jstreetdotorg is not going to support @BarackObama,” Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted September 8, “then it shouldn’t expect the W.H. to care about its M.E. positions.” If J Street wants influence, wrote JTA’s Ron Kampeas that same week, “answering ‘We dunno’ on Syria is not the way to go about earning it.”

“J Street is irrelevant to the policy conversation,” one senior official at a Washington-based pro-Israel organization told me. “They split their time between being redundant, or being losers, or not saying anything at all. Sometimes they support positions everyone already endorses, like the two-state solution. Other times they support losing positions, like advocating that the U.S. distance itself from Israel. Lately they’ve just refused to take positions on anything controversial, like Syria.”

AIPAC, on the other hand, came out in full support of Obama’s Syria plan. Some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists were poised to storm Capitol Hill and lobby on behalf of the president—before he changed course, leaving AIPAC to twist in the wind.

And now it rewards AIPAC’s rival by sending the vice president of the United States.

The even more significant issue, say observers, is the message this may be sending about the White House’s Iran policy. As Alan Dershowitz wrote last year, the self-described “pro-Israel and propeace” organization is “undercutting” the Obama administration’s Iran policy. J Street, wrote Dershowitz, “is sending a message to both Iran and Israel that there is no credible military threat, and that if Iran is prepared to withstand sanctions and diplomacy, it will have nothing further to worry about if it moves forward with its nuclear weapons program.”

The administration seems to be inching closer to J Street’s position. It has already moved to relieve sanctions, as a “goodwill gesture” after the election that brought “moderate” cleric Hassan Rouhani to the presidency. And now even more excitement is building since, according to one report, Iran’s supreme leader has given Rouhani “permission for direct talks” with the U.S. on both Syria and the nuclear file. And maybe at next week’s UN General Assembly meeting Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif will meet with John Kerry.

The reality is that all the administration has in its quiver is a J Street-like policy of engagement. Because Obama wasn’t willing even to launch “an unbelievably small” strike against Assad, because the president failed to make his case to the American people that it was in the national interest to do so, and because in accepting the Russian initiative Obama effectively legitimized a Syrian dictator whom he had previously said had lost all legitimacy, the Iranians know very well that the United States has no credible military threat against them.

So its hard not to come to the conclusion that the vice president is delivering J Street’s keynote address only because the president doesn’t want to tip his hand by giving the speech himself. Obama, it seems, has made J Street’s Iran policy his own.