Congressmen Live in Fear of Pro-Israeli Intimidation'
William Kristol, head of right-wing Emergency Committee for
Israel, stuns debate audience in New York: 'I agree with Obama’s
Israel policies to a considerable degree.'
By Chemi Shalev
May 17, 2012 "Haaretz"
-- Many American senators and congressmen “keep quiet” and
refrain from criticizing Israeli policies because they “live in
fear” and are “intimidated” by pro-Israeli groups such as the
Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), according to J Street
founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Ben-Ami’s bald assertion came during a debate with Weekly
Standard editor Bill Kristol, a director of ECI, held on Tuesday
night at Manhattan’s palatial B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue and
moderated by Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward. Ben Ami
said that because of accusatory ECI ads in the New York Times
and other media outlets, members of Congress are afraid of being
branded as anti-Israel and are deterred by the “ramifications”
of voicing open criticism of Israeli policies.
It was a rare moment of tension in an otherwise civil and even
friendly debate, which pitted representatives of the two
diametrically opposed poles of the current Jewish debate on
Israel – the controversial lobby J Street on the left and the
no-less contentious Emergency Committee on the right. The crowd
of 700-800, mainly from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, clearly
favored Ben Ami’s positions though they were obviously pleased
by Kristol’s agreement to debate him.
Another reason for the amicable nature of the debate was that
Kristol “didn’t supply the goods," as Israelis would put it. He
voiced surprisingly moderate positions about President Obama and
about the creation of a Palestinian state, which seemed
completely at odds with the harsh tone of ECI advertisements and
especially of its popular 30 minute television film “Daylight:
The Story of Obama and Israel.”
While the film depicts Obama’s attitude toward Israel as
“alarming” and “damaging to the relationship” between the U.S.
and Israel, Kristol told the audience that Obama had, in fact,
“moved to the center” on both Iran and the peace process, and
that his policies today resemble those of his predecessors Bill
Clinton and George W. Bush.
And while the ECI committee has run billboard campaigns
describing Obama as “not pro-Israel," Kristol told the audience
that the president had evolved considerably between his 2009
Cairo speech and his 2012 AIPAC speech, and that “the
difference” between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney
on issues relating to Iran and Israel “is not that great."
“I am happy to agree with Obama to a considerable degree,” said
Kristol, one of America’s most well-known conservative
commentators. He added that he does not expect Israel to be
“that great an issue” in the upcoming November elections.
Nonetheless, Kristol elicited howls of protest from the audience
when he predicted that the next U.S. secretary of state in a
“Romney administration” would be former Democratic vice
presidential nominee Senator Joe Lieberman. Ben-Ami wryly noted,
“Israel already has a Lieberman as foreign minister.”
Ben-Ami also seemed to be reciprocating Kristol’s conciliatory
tone towards Obama by commending Romney’s refusal to emulate his
Republican rivals during the primaries and "pander” on the issue
of the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He said that
Romney’s attitude toward the peace process did not seem to rule
out an active U.S. role in advancing the peace process.
Kristol rejected Ben-Ami’s call for the U.S. president to “lay
down the parameters” of a peace deal – 1967 borders with
modifications, Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and the
Palestinians, no right of return and a demilitarized Palestinian
state. Kristol said that it was not the business of America to
“impose” a peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians nor was it
Washington’s duty to “call Israel’s bluff” and to expose its
obstinacy, if it exists, to the outside world.
Nonetheless, Kristol surprised many in the audience by voicing
clear support for a Palestinian state, saying, “I would be very
happy if there was a Palestinian state”. He rejected Ben-Ami’s
predictions of a one-state future in which the Palestinians
would demand the principle of “one man one vote," saying that
Israel has ruled the occupied territories for over 45 years and
that the indefinite maintenance of the current status quo “is
also an option."
Ben-Ami, who deals with the Israeli-Palestinian issue seven days
a week, was clearly better informed on the details of the issues
than Kristol, who is a major player in the overall Republican
agenda. Kristol repeatedly cited his own ignorance in order to
dodge open disagreements with Ben-Ami, conceding that he doesn’t
know much about the blockade of Gaza, that he is not aware of
the details of Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank
and that he is incapable of judging whether Israeli democracy
and the rule of law are indeed endangered by the government’s
refusal to carry out High Court orders to evacuate the
settlements at Migron and at the Ulpana sector of Beit-El, as
But, he protested, “This is what American Jews have to do?
Criticize the level of democracy and the rule of law in Israel?
It is certainly better than in any other country in the Middle
East and in other parts of the world.” Ben-Ami drew enthusiastic
support from the audience when he retorted that large parts of
the American Jewish community “won’t stand for” Kristol’s
"Israel right or wrong” attitude.
Kristol said that he welcomed debate with J Street, but would
not agree to a dialogue with supporters of BDS – boycott,
divestment and sanctions – against Israel, while Ben Ami said
that BDS supporters should be engaged, despite his disagreement
with their positions. He draws the line, he added, at having a
dialogue with people who advocate the destruction of the Jewish
Kristol then went so far as to actually praise Ben-Ami’s
achievements in building the J Street organization, but added
that it has no real influence on the Obama administration. “I
hope J Street continues to flourish and to have no effect on
policy,” he said and was rewarded with the audience’s
The Ben-Ami - Kristol debate, coming on the heels of a similar
debate held two weeks ago between controversial author Peter
Beinart and the conservative Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis at
Columbia University, appears to signal an attempt by the Jewish
community – at least in New York - to create an ongoing dialogue
between its warring “factions” and to arrest the polarization of
The debates may also herald an end to attempts to ostracize
organizations such as J Street and viewpoints like those
espoused by Beinart, and to recognize the legitimacy of their
hitherto shunned left-wing views.
As an Israeli observer, I must admit I found myself envious of
the ability of the two debaters and of their audience to conduct
such a potentially volatile political debate in an atmosphere of
mutual respect. In Israel, I suspect, such civilized debates may
no longer be possible.