I'm delighted with Jeremy Ben-Ami's answer to my direct question. Ben-Ami, speaking for J Street, now says that American wars and casualties "do not find their roots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it would be absurd to adhere to such a simplistic causal analysis." This answer is important for several reasons. First, it puts J Street directly in conflict with many on the hard left, including some of J Street' own supporters, who have publicly stated that American casualties are directly caused by Israel's alleged refusal to make peace. Second, it puts J Street directly in conflict with views attributed (falsely one hopes) to Vice President Joe Biden and General David Petraeus. Biden was quoted as telling Prime Minister Netanyahu, "what you're doing here undermines the security of our troops." And General Petraeus has been quoted as saying that Israeli intransigents "could cost American lives."
I am personally delighted that J Street is distancing itself from these false and dangerous arguments, because my goal in engaging Ben-Ami has always been to persuade J Street to join the large pro-Israel consensus on issues relating to Israel's security. I extended that invitation to him at our debate at the 92nd Y and continue to extend it now. It is important that the pro-Israel community speak with one voice on Israel's security, even while engaging in healthy disagreement on issues relating to the settlements, Jerusalem, etc.
It is important that J Street publicly announce its rejection of the linkage argument between Israel's actions and American casualties. When this argument was all over the media and being quickly adopted by the likes of Walt and Mearsheimer, Patrick Buchanan, Joe Klein and Roger Cohen, J Street was silent. When I condemned this argument in my speech at AIPAC, I received no support from J Street. It is not enough for Jeremy Ben-Ami to agree with me when pressed with a direct question. It is important for J Street to get out front and publicly criticize those making this argument, even when they are members of the Obama Administration. I hope J Street will join me in doing so.
On a more fundamental level, I hope J Street will accept my invitation to work together and to try to speak with one voice when it comes to protecting Israel's security.
Now it's my turn to answer Ben-Ami's direct question to me. Of course there is an American national interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every country in the world has some national interest in bringing peace to that region. But I believe that the new emerging policy of the Obama Administration exaggerates the extent of our national interest in forcing a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that J Street has encouraged that exaggeration by claiming that it is "critical" to American strategic interests. I believe that very little will change in the Middle East, with regard to the major threats we face from Iran, Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism, by a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, desirable as that would be. And, of course, much depends on how the conflict is resolved--whether a resolution encourages or discourages further attacks against Israel, and whether it increases or decreases the likelihood of future wars. A "bad" peace that does not assure Israel's security will not serve either American or Israeli interests.
I do not believe, as Ben-Ami does that, "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [is] a centerpiece of [extremists] recruitment." The centerpiece is Israel's very existence, as well as American presence on Muslim land. I do not believe that Israel is the reason for "the rising influence of Iran in the region and its quest for nuclear weapons." Nor do I believe that resolving it would help to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This leads me to my final challenge to J Street: Do you believe that if America fails to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and if the Israeli government makes a considered decision that it must use military action, as a last resort, to prevent Iran from being able to deploy nuclear weapons, that Israel would have the right to engage in preventive self defense by attacking Iran's nuclear facilities? I am not asking whether Israel should or should not consider such attack, since I lack the military expertise to make that decision, as do you. I am asking whether Israel should have the right to make that decision. And I'm asking whether you believe the United States should seek to prevent Israel from acting on that decision as an absolute last resort?
Finally, I think this exchange has been healthy in bringing us together on some issues, while exposing differences on others. I still believe that J Street should join with mainstream pro-Israel organizations in speaking with one voice--even issuing joint statements--on security issues on which there is substantial, even if not perfect, agreement, and I extend an invitation to Jeremy Ben-Ami to continue to dialogue with me and others on these important issues.