In an exclusive interview, Ben-Ami told the Forward that J Street will deliberate over the next few weeks about whether to advocate for bills that would attach conditions to the aid. Such bills have been introduced to Congress in the past, but J Street has never endorsed them before.
“If the United States Congress wants to put into place in legislation that authorizes the aid, ‘none of the funds in this section shall be used for XYZ’ – that seems to be a very fair thing to say,” Ben-Ami said. “The United States should not want to see its taxpayer dollars used in any way for the support of activities that implement a decision to annex” the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged in the final days before last week’s Israeli elections to annex the West Bank, which most observers believe would kill chances of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I think that [annexation] is the proverbial straw – it’s the Middle East, so camel’s back is a good analogy,” Ben-Ami said.
Freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with Yahoo News last week that reducing aid to Israel or placing conditions on it was “certainly on the table” and that “conversations are happening in our caucus” on the subject.
“J Street is going to do some hard thinking internally as an organization and talk to our allies and stakeholders in our work and see how people feel about what the lines are that should be drawn and when the appropriate moment is,” Ben-Ami said. “That’s all that the congresswoman opened up by saying these things, and that’s what we’re saying too….[The conversation] would not be happening if the government of Israel were not pushing too far in its steps toward annexation.”
In her interview, Ocasio-Cortez brought up a bill that has repeatedly been introduced by Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, requiring the State Department to annually certify that no American taxpayer money is being used to detain or abuse Palestinian children. J Street has never backed the bill before, but may do so in the next few weeks once its deliberations conclude, Ben-Ami said.
A 2016 agreement between then-president Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the aid at $38 billion over ten years. There are very few conditions attached, though the money must be spent on American contractors.
Other Israel-related advocacy groups have opposed putting conditions on the aid, but Ben-Ami denied that calling for a change affected his organization’s pro-Israel bona fides. “It is a very, very pro-Israel position,” he said. “The United States should stand with Israel in guaranteeing its security…but it does not have to provide a blank check as the state of Israel creates its own, long-term existential security threats.”
The George W. Bush and Obama administrations supported the two-state vision, but Trump foreign policy figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have very deliberately not done so. Ben-Ami said that J Street had been meeting with several Democratic presidential contenders, and was particularly pushing for candidates to commit to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from last year. “We are committed to having a new president in 2021,” he said.
Ben-Ami said the organization would be watching Israeli and American policymakers closely for signs of support for West Bank annexation - particularly given that the long-awaited Trump peace plan is not believed to include support for a Palestinian state. “It’s going to take us a few weeks to think things through,” he said. “In the interim, we’ll probably see some moves by the administration and responses by Israel, and we’ll know whether it was campaign rhetoric or a serious plan.”