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 Ben-Ami asserted.
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 state.
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 appreciative laughter.
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 community.
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.