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J Street Chief: Yeah, We'd Support Obama if He Cut Aid to Israel

4:36 PM, Dec 10, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Before J Street's inaugural conference, the group's director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in which he stated flatly that U.S. aid to Israel should not be used as leverage in peace negotiations. "Military aid should not be on the table -- this is an absolutely essential aspect of Israel's security, and it's an essential aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship," Ben-Ami told Goldberg. The comment made news, upsetting J Street's more left-wing supporters and garnering plaudits from its more moderate critics, but that may not have been Ben-Ami's final answer.

At the J Street conference, there was a panel on messaging that featured J Street communications guru Matt Dorf, who told the audience that "When we talk to different people, we need to say different things." It appears that Ben-Ami may have been playing the same game on the question of U.S. aid to Israel. Last month, a letter to the editor appeared in the Bay Area Jewish newspaper j. The author, Larry Goldberg, explained:

Recently I attended a small J Street meeting in San Francisco with Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, as the main speaker. As a 50-year supporter of AIPAC, I was interested in how Ben-Ami described his organization and his policies to an otherwise sympathetic audience.

The two elements that he emphasized over and over were that the group had been formed to support the Obama policies affecting Israel and that J Street was an integral part of the progressive movement.

The stress on their being part of the Obama support team was so strong, that my direct question to Ben-Ami in the Q&A was whether J Street would follow Obama if he decided to either cut or eliminate foreign-aid funds to Israel. His answer was yes.

Larry Goldberg is an interesting character. In 1972, he ran Jewish outreach for the Nixon campaign and went on to serve in the Nixon White House. After that, Goldberg served as vice president of Brandeis University before returning to politics to run Jewish outreach for the Reagan campaign in 1980. Goldberg served as Deputy Director of Community Services Administration in the Reagan White House before moving out to San Francisco where he began working in real estate and teaching politics at the University of San Francisco's Fromm Institute. Goldberg now lives in San Francisco with his "progressive" wife, who gets invited to a lot of events. "I tag along sometimes," Goldberg told me.

At this particular event, Goldberg said there were just "19 people in a conference room at a law firm" in San Francisco. Goldberg seated himself "directly across from Jeremy," he said, "I had my hearing aid in so everything was set." Ben-Ami pitched J Street as "part of the Obama team," Goldberg said, and when the question and answer portion of the event came around, Goldberg asked Ben-Ami an obvious question: "If Obama wants to put pressure on Israel by cutting aid, would you support him?" According to Goldberg, "the first answer was vague," so he pressed Ben-Ami, "If Obama asked J Street to support it, would you?" According to Goldberg, Ben-Ami answered directly: "yes."

After Goldberg wrote the letter to the editor above, Ben-Ami called him to discuss the matter. Goldberg says that Ben-Ami "didn't call me a liar or say that I misheard him -- it was a 20 to 25 minute conversation and he never said I was lying." Neither did Ben-Ami accuse Goldberg of lying when he wrote his own letter to the editor of j. responding to Goldberg:

Larry Goldberg gets my positions and those of J Street completely wrong in his letter ("J Street on wrong road," Nov. 13).

First, J Street would never automatically support any decision - either by President Obama or by any elected official or politician - vis a vis Israel. We will support policies and decisions that advance the long-term security and health of Israel as a Jewish democracy, the interests of the United States, and a two-state solution and regional comprehensive peace. We are not a rubber stamp for any administration or president.

Second, let me be clear: J Street is unequivocally opposed to the U.S. cutting military aid to Israel. We believe that it is neither necessary nor productive to put such aid at risk, and that the mere threat of doing so would likely undermine any hope of achieving a two-state solution.

Goldberg has no reason to lie, and Ben-Ami never suggests that he has lied -- but for the very public forum of a Jewish newspaper in Northern California, Ben-Ami has opted to restate J Street's public position as he laid it out for Jeffrey Goldberg back in October. It seems obvious, though, that J Street is saying different things to different audiences, just as his communications adviser Matt Dorf has counseled him. The question, then, is where does J Street really stand on the question of aid to Israel?