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Don’t Let the Billionaires Decide

In mid-November, two billionaires with a shared interest in Israel but radically different domestic politics shared a stage, airing their views on critical challenges facing Israel and the United States, from Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Because Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban can — and do — spend tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars to advance their views, their opinions matter deeply.

Though no one elected them to represent the American Jewish community, American policymakers see these figures as the representatives of the Jewish community. Politicians set their positions on critical questions affecting American national security and Israel’s future, with one eye on gaining their support and another on avoiding their wrath.

Some politicians may actually believe that the views of these and other large funders are representative of the broader Jewish community. Maybe they don’t hear contrary voices because these issues aren’t central concerns in their districts or on the agenda of those they meet while fundraising nationally.

Others understand the wide gap in opinion between the powerful voices of a few rich political funders and the community as a whole, but they silently go along, seeing no gain in staking out moderate and nuanced positions that have wider support.

Poll after poll confirms that many of the views expressed by these men — from Adelson’s belief that “the Palestinians are an invented people” to Saban’s support for “bombing Iran to smithereens” — don’t speak for Jewish Americans more broadly.

The overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans recognize the need for compromise with the Palestinians to ensure Israel’s survival and security (so, too, does Saban, by the way), and support measured diplomacy with Iran as the best way to prevent their attainment of a nuclear weapon.

In fact, an election night poll of 800 Jewish voters found that 84% support a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute with Iran that would limit Iran’s enrichment activity, provide for intense inspection activity and reduce sanctions in return. That number must shock American politicians, considering the hawkish rhetoric they hear from the community’s most established lobbyists and powerful institutions.

And on Israel-Palestine, overwhelming majorities support not only a two-state solution in general (80%) but also the specifics of a deal that includes basing the border on the 1967 lines with swaps, and establishing the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state (76%).

Of course, billionaires are as entitled as any American to their views on any and all issues and to make them heard in vibrant political debate.

But when their views drown out the voice of the majority because of the money they spend and the power that the money yields, something has gone fundamentally wrong in our democratic system. And the damage affects America’s national interest, Israel’s survival and the long-run health of the American Jewish community.

Without American leadership to end it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is drifting toward devastating violence and a dark future. Thousands died this past summer in fighting in and around Gaza. People are dying on the streets of Jerusalem and in communities across Israel and the West Bank right now. At any moment, tensions may flare into a new intifada, and violence around the world’s holiest sites could spread regionally or globally.

For those who care about Israelis and Palestinians, the long-term looks as bleak as the short-term. With no path to peace, Palestinian suffering will continue and Israel’s insecurity and isolation will grow.

The path we are now on harms America’s national interest and will ultimately fracture America’s Jewish community, which won’t tolerate an Israel that stretches to the Mediterranean from the Jordan River without full political rights for all who live there.

American policymakers know this. So, too, do many American politicians in Congress. Yet they take no action, fearing the wrath of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions.

Something must change. Courageous leaders must step forward, confident of the support they will have if they go against the loudest voices.

Barring that, the majority of Americans who care deeply about Israel’s security and recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination must reclaim the microphone and demand American support for rational, diplomatic solutions to these deep-seated conflicts.

Doing so grows more critical by the minute as these conflicts threaten to engulf so much we care so deeply about.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street.

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