RJC, J Street Heads Debate Israel and 2016

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From the outset, both Jeremy Ben-Ami and Matt Brooks agreed on supporting the two-state solution, on confronting Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East region and on opposing the BDS movement against Israel. But as the moderator, PBS’ Jon Ralston began rolling out the questions, the president of J Street and the Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition displayed fundamental differences on various issues as they relate to Israel, the Iran nuclear deal, and the 2016 election.

In a first-of-its-kind event, Ben-Ami and Brooks on Wednesday participated in a public discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the policy preferences and beliefs of Jewish Americans, at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas.

Addressing J Street’s involvement in the 2016 elections, Ben-Ami insisted his group is non-partisan since its mission is “to advocate for a certain set of American policies that we believe are in the best interest of the United States, of the American-Jewish community, and, in our opinion, of the State of Israel.”

“We have endorsed Republicans. We have a very strong outreach effort to Republicans because there has been over the course of the last eight decades a very bipartisan approach to the concept of a State of Israel – bipartisan administrations of Republicans and Democrats have pursued a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he explained. “We do not want to be a partisan organization. We want to see the Republican Party shift back to where it used to be in the mainstream of American foreign policy thinking.”

“We would love to endorse some Republicans,” said Ben-Ami. Brooks retorted, “You are not going to endorse my Republicans because our Republicans are pro-Israel.”

Ben-Ami said that J Street’s red line in supporting candidates for office is funding for the Iron Dome defense system. “Let’s agree to agree that funding for Iron Dome is a red line for a pro-Israel legislator,” he said after Brooks confronted him on the issue. “I would a hundred percent agree with you. And if those candidates vote against Iron Dome funding, they will not [have our support].”

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, also came up during the debate, as Ralston pressed Brooks on whether the RJC would support Trump if he’s the nominee. “The long-standing policy is that when there’s an ongoing primary, we are not going to weigh in and try to pick and choose favorites, or try and put our thumb on the scale and help one candidate or hurt another,” said Brooks. “Our track record in speaking up — and we will have plenty of opportunity once we have a nominee to speak up or speak out as the case may be — if you step back and you look at the history of the organization, whether it’s Pat Buchanan or others, even speaking out and taking on our own president when we had fundamental differences of opinion.”

Brooks also pushed back against the notion that Trump’s candidacy makes Jewish voters and party leaders feel uncomfortable. “Uncomfortable in what way?” he asked the moderator. “Uncomfortable in the way that if you look at Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton? He is someone who has clearly said he’s going to do what it takes to stand up to radical Islam. When you look at the contrast between any one of the Republicans that are in this race right now, the choices are absolutely clear – including Donald Trump. All of them have said that they are going to rip up the Iran deal on Day One. They have all said that they are going to do whatever it takes to beat back the threat from ISIS, and they call it for what it is: radical Islamic terrorism. All of them have stated a strong commitment to the pro-Israel agenda.”

As expected, Ben-Ami wasn’t satisfied with Brooks’ answer. “At some point, the RJC will have to clarify if it is supporting a candidate who is endorsed by David Duke, Louis Farrakhan, and Pat Buchanan, or not,” he told Jewish Insider after the event. “That’s a simple yes or no, and it’s clear to us that the answer should be no.”

Turning to the Democratic race for president, Ralston asked Ben-Ami if he was worried and concerned about Bernie Sanders’ lack of knowledge on foreign policy issues. “Bernie Sanders lived in Israel – on a kibbutz. He has a very deep personal connection to the State of Israel,” Ben-Ami stated. “I think that should be something that is really a positive for all of us. He has a deep love for the State of Israel. If people were worried about feeling it in the kishkes, believe me, he feels it in the kishkes. He tells us that every day. So, that is absolutely something that I am not at all concerned about.”

Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also came up during the program. “Do you think President Obama has been a good president for Israel?” Ralston asked both leaders.

“I think he has been an excellent president for Israel,” Ben-Ami replied. “If you look at the level of security assistance that has taken place in cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, and you listen to the Prime Minister of Israel, the Defense Minister of Israel, the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and Ambassador [Ron] Dermer and [former] Ambassador [Michael] Oren, they will all say – and they have said it over, and over, and over again – that the security corporation between the U.S. government and the Israeli government under this administration have never been better in the history of U.S.-Israel relations. Now, do the president and the prime minister see eye to eye on all issues? The obvious answer to that is: no. But the fundamental underlying relationship between the two countries, and the security cooperation between the two, has been terrific.”

Brooks, in return, blamed J Street for putting pressure on the Obama administration “to do what it can to drive a wedge between this administration and the Netanyahu administration.”

He also pointed to J Street’s lobbying in support of the Iran nuclear deal as something that stands in contradiction with their recent call to impose sanctions on Iran for its violation of UN resolutions by conducting ballistic missiles tests aimed at Israel. “So far, everything that we are seeing now is absolutely, totally, 100 percent, predictable,” said Brooks. “It was foreseeable because there’s no question that the Iranians are absolutely bad actors, that they were playing the U.S. government and the international community.”

Following the event, Jewish Insider spoke to Brooks and Ben-Ami for reaction on the subject that were discussed during the event.

“The conversation with J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami demonstrated that groups and individuals can disagree strongly on important issues yet debate and discuss those issues with civility and respect,” Brooks told Jewish Insider. “Substantively, the program highlighted the very stark differences in policy and world view between J Street, our organization, and the mainstream Jewish community. On critical issues, J Street stands not with the mainstream of the Jewish community but rather with those who espouse more extreme views.”

While acknowledging their differences, Ben-Ami echoed similar sentiments. “On the one hand, I felt that it actually was a very good example of being able to sit together in a conversation where we aired out our differences. I thought we didn’t engage in negative personal attacks, and we explored the differences,” Ben-Ami told Jewish Insider. “On the other hand, the arguments that Matt was making were really based on rhetoric and repeating a lot of the same talking points, but not on the facts of things, like what’s actually happening to Iran’s nuclear program and how does Israel actually preserve its future. So, I felt we didn’t really get full answers from him on the critical issues on the table, but the conversation, at least, was a good model of engagement.”

Below is a partial transcript of the debate:

Iran missiles test:

Ben-Ami: “There has to be a punishment. There has to be a consequence, and there should be action by the U.S. unilaterally. Last time there was a missile test the U.S.imposed additional sanctions, and we would support further sanctions that are addressed specifically at the missile program. I’d like to see the administration take the toughest possible steps on all fronts with Iran in terms of its bad behavior, and that includes missile tests, state sponsorship of terror. There’s possibly agreement across the board that Iran is a bad actor, and the U.S. needs to stand firm and strong on all aspects of its behavior that cross these red lines.”

Brooks: Jeremy’s answer is dripping with irony. So far, everything that we are seeing now is absolutely, totally, 100 percent predictable. If you look at the people who were critics of the administration’s push for this deal, who opposed the Iran deal, is because this was foreseeable. It was foreseeable because there’s no question that the Iranians are absolutely bad actors, that they were playing the U.S. government and the international community. If you were listening what the Israelis, and others, were saying, they were all sounding the alarm bell… It’s great that he wants to put sanction on now, it’s great that he’s upset that they are showing their colors. But this was – I think for anybody who took a step back and studied this deal – one hundred percent predictable as to where we are now.”

Obama-Israel:

Ralston: “Do you think President Obama has been a good president for Israel?”

Ben-Ami: “I think he has been an excellent president for Israel. If you look at the level of security assistance that has taken place in cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, and you listen to the Prime Minister of Israel, the Defense Minister of Israel, the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and Ambassador [Ron] Dermer and [former] Ambassador [Michael] Oren, they will all say – and they have said it over, and over, and over again – that the security corporation between the U.S. government and the Israeli government under this administration have never been better in the history of U.S.-Israel relations. Now, do the president and the prime minister see eye to eye on all issues? The obvious answer to that is: no. But the fundamental underlying relationship between the two countries, and the security cooperation between the two has been terrific.”

Brooks: “There is an opportunity for Jeremy and J Street to stand with the mainstream of the Jewish community, which clearly understands that Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton have done more to dismantle the fabric of the U.S.-Israel relations than any administration in history. Jeremy and his organization, rather than standing with the mainstream Jewish community, wants to stand in the extreme and take positions that are mirroring the Obama administration. Everything that J Street does in terms of their public comments is designed to put pressure on this president and this administration to do what it can to drive a wedge between this administration and the Netanyahu administration.”

Trump and Sanders:

Ralston: “Can you see the RJC endorsing Donald Trump if he’s the nominee?”

Brooks: “It’s a ‘we are going to have to wait and see’ answer. The long-standing policy is that when there’s an ongoing primary, we are not going to weigh in and try to pick and choose favorites, or try and put our thumb on the scale and help one candidate or hurt another. Our track record in speaking up — and we will have plenty of opportunity once we have a nominee to speak up or speak out as the case may be — if you back and you look at the history of the organizations, whether it’s Pat Buchanan or others, even speaking out and taking on our own president when we had fundamental differences of opinion.”

Ralston: “Does Donald Trump make you feel uncomfortable?”

Brooks: “Uncomfortable in what way? Uncomfortable in the way that if you look at Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton? He is someone who has clearly said he’s going to do what it takes to stand up to radical Islam. When you look at the contrast between anyone of the Republicans that are in this race right now, the choices are absolutely clear – including Donald Trump. All of them have said that they are going to rip up the Iran deal on Day One. They have all said that they are going to do whatever it takes to beat back the threat from ISIS, and they call it for what it is: radical Islamic terrorism. All of them have stated a strong commitment to the pro-Israel agenda.”

Ralston: “But Donald Trump says it’s like a business deal.”

Brooks: “That’s the way how he looks at the world.”

Ralston: “And you are comfortable with that?”

Brooks: “I’m comfortable with the fact that I think he knows how to negotiate. But I am not going to take the bait and sort of weigh in on an ongoing primary. That debate is something for the candidates. As an organization, we don’t jump into primary battles.”

Ralston to Ben-Ami: “Aren’t you a little bit worried about Bernie Sanders’ knowledge of foreign policy, at all?”

Ben-Ami: “We are not endorsing any candidate in this race. We are meeting with anybody [who is willing to meet with us]. We are very happy to be meeting with Bernie Sanders and with Hillary Clinton – and we would meet with any of the Republican candidates if you can help arrange that opportunity. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to that yet – to provide our perspective on these issues. That’s what we do; we are a lobbying organization, and we meet with these groups. Bernie Sanders lived in Israel – on a kibbutz. He has a very deep personal connection to the State of Israel. I think that should be something that is really a positive for all of us. He has a deep love for the State of Israel. If people were worried about feeling it in the kishkes, believe me, he feels it in the kishkes. He tells us that every day. So, that is absolutely something that I am not at all concerned about. What I am concerned about is ripping up the Iran deal on Day One.”

Mission:

Brooks: “Our policy, as an organization, is to support the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel… The RJC has been in existence when we have had prime ministers like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, and you know what? We supported them publically. Our policy is not to air our dirty laundry in public. We would never work against the policies of an Israeli government by lobbying our Republican friends in Congress. You know, a perfect example is Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon’s disengagement policy. As you can imagine, there was a big split of opinion as to whether or not we, as American Jews, supported the decision of Prime Minister Sharon to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. Now, whereas a number of people on the leadership of our organization probably felt it was a bad decision, we didn’t go to our Republican friends on the Hill like Jeremy does constantly and lobby them to put pressure on Sharon not to do that. Jeremy thinks it’s great that Barack Obama wants to have daylight between the U.S. and Israel. He is, I am sure, totally on board with Bernie Sanders’ comments. In fact, J Street is an advisor to Bernie Sanders. And that’s the kind of vision that they have.”

Ben-Ami: “The mission of your organization, Matt, is to elect Republicans to office. We have a mission too, and our mission is to advocate for a certain set of American policies that we believe are in the best interest of the United States, of the American-Jewish community, and, in our opinion, of the State of Israel…”

Ralston: “Do you think just because you don’t have the word ‘Democratic’ in your group’s name that you are less partisan than his group is?”

Ben-Ami: “We would love to endorse some of Matt’s Republicans. No, we are not partisan. We have endorsed Republicans…”

Brooks: “You are not going to endorse my Republicans because our Republicans are pro-Israel.”

Ben-Ami: “Ha! That’s a good one. Score one.”

“We have endorsed Republicans. We have a very strong outreach effort to Republicans because there has been over the course of the last eight decades a very bipartisan approach to the concept of a State of Israel – to what it means to support that State of Israel. Part of that bipartisan conception – starting with Ronald Reagan, who opened up discussions with the PLO in 1988, continuing through George H, Bush,who started the Madrid conference, through Bill Clinton, through George W. Bush and the Annapolis process, and through Barack Obama – bipartisan administrations of Republicans and Democrats have pursued a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, we do not want to be a partisan organization. We want to see the Republican Party shift back to where it used to be in the mainstream of American foreign policy thinking.”

Brooks asks Ben-Ami: “Where are your red lines? At what point are people so far to the extreme that you are not going to support them?”

Ben-Ami: “Let’s agree to agree that funding for Iron Dome is a red line for a pro-Israel legislator. I would a hundred percent agree with you. And if those candidates vote against Iron Dome funding, they will not [have our support].”

Donors:

Ralston: Who funds your organization?

Ben-Ami: “We have over 10,000 donors. I know that the name you all are begging to hear is the name George Soros, and George Soros does fund J Street. There was controversy at the beginning of J Street as to the involvement of George Soros in our launching. A lot of miscommunication. I have apologized for all of that, and we are well beyond that. The only thing I have had to say about George Soros’s funding since then is that I wish there were more of it.”

Brooks: “George Soros does not give us any money. I would take my billionaire over your billionaire any day.”

Ben-Ami: “The billionaire you are stuck with, in this cycle, is Donald Trump, and you are going to earn your salary all year long defending Donald Trump.”

Brooks: “I will take my billionaire and his wife (Sheldon and Miriam Adelson) over your billionaire any day.”

Ralston: “So, Sheldon Adelson funds the RJC completely?

Brooks: No. He doesn’t, of course not. We have a wide range of donors; we have 45,000 members across the country, and we are blessed to have a wide range of people who care passionately about the issues that we share. The one thing, unlike Jeremy, we don’t have to apologize for any of our donors.”

Ben-Ami: “I didn’t apologize for my donors. I apologized for my statements, and that’s the difference. We are very proud of our donors as well.”


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