WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration will base its relationship to Israel’s incoming government on the actions it takes, not the people installed in positions of power, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a speech Sunday.
Blinken’s speech, to the conference of the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group J Street, was notable because it offered the first official response to deepening questions about how the White House would work with a Israeli government that includes far-right parties. Until now, sources close to the administration had suggested that the White House could decline to meet with those parties’ leaders.
Blinken said the Biden administration would “continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, but not limited to, settlement expansion; moves toward annexation of the West Bank; disruption to the historic status quo at holy sites; demolitions and evictions; and incitement to violence.”
The speech drew criticism from some J Street followers for stopping short of dealing firmly with an incoming Israeli government that they feel is taking aim at some of Israel’s core democratic principles.
“I had zero expectations for Blinken’s speech. And he couldn’t even meet those,” said Richard Goldwasser, a former J Street board member from Chicago, on Twitter. “Pablum on Xanax.”
The theme of J Street’s conference this year was battling anti-democratic forces in Israel and in the United States. Jeremy Ben-Ami, in his opening speech Saturday night, unveiled the group’s new motto, “Pro Israel, pro-peace, pro democracy”; the “pro-democracy” element was new. Ben-Ami drew a contrast with J Street’s main rival, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AIPAC drew liberal Jewish criticism after its launch last year of political action committees that back an array of candidates, ranging from progressive to far right. It has also declined to comment on the likely inclusion in Netanyahu’s government of far right extremists, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane.
“So rather than focusing on defeating the white nationalists and the election deniers, with whom most of Jewish America has nothing in common, they instead are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat liberal and progressive candidates who may or may not have once in their lives uttered a critical word about Israeli policy,” Ben-Ami said. “Organizations that failed to call out the Ben-Gvirs and the [Bezalel] Smotriches of Israel while endorsing the Jim Jordans, the Andy Biggs, the Scott Perrys here in the U.S. do not speak for us.”
Perry of Pennsylvania, Biggs of Arizona and Jordan of Ohio have all to varying degrees endorsed the election lies by President Donald Trump that spurred the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
J Street’s conference was focused on democracy in the United States at times to the exclusion of the issue that founded the organization in 2008, Israeli-Palestinian peace. In a 30-minute keynote speech Saturday night, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Jewish Democratic congressman from Maryland known for his constitutional expertise, barely mentioned Israel.
“I know that you know what it means to be pro-Israel and pro-peace,” Raskin said. “And I want to just discuss for my time with you tonight what it means to be a pro-democracy American in 2022 in a rather frightful world where so many people have turned to propaganda and conspiracy theory and disinformation and fanaticism and authoritarianism.” He was interrupted multiple times by applause.
AIPAC mocked J Street for its absence of conventional pro-Israel content. “Not a word of praise for Israel,” the organization said in a tweet attached to a photo of Ben-Ami speaking at the conference. “Not a single recognition of Israel’s achievements or value. Not a single embrace of the Israeli people.”
Noa, the Israeli singer-songwriter, also appeared on Saturday night, singing songs that had been penned by Palestinian-Israelis. She likened the relationship of the Jewish Diaspora to Israel to that of a mother to a daughter, saying that mothers need to look out for the children, whatever tensions may arise.
“The Jewish people needs to help the maturing child,” she said, reflecting a theme that it repeated itself throughout the conference: that a voice like J Street was especially needed at a time of crisis in its democracy. “The worst thing we could do is walk away,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group.
Blinken did speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reflecting the pessimistic mood in the room but saying that he believed progress could still be achieved.
“I know that many people are disillusioned,” he said. “Many people are frustrated. We’ve been trying to get to a two-state solution for decades, and yet it seems that we’ve only gotten further away from that goal. But we cannot afford to give up hope. We cannot succumb to cynicism. We cannot give in to apathy. It’s precisely when times are difficult — when peace seems even further from reach — that we’ve simply got to work harder, that we must continue to pursue whatever openings we can to show that progress is still possible.”