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Obama Officials Confess Their Human Rights Sins at J Street Conference

Last month’s J Street Conference featured some mea culpas from high ranking former Obama Administration officials over their failure to protect Palestinian rights when they were in a position to do so. They were self-serving, but also important.

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President Barack Obama talks with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor.
President Barack Obama talks with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. Rhodes has regrets., Official White House Photo/Pete Souza

At its just-concluded conference, J Street showed itself to be a potent lobby inside the Democratic Party dedicated to support for Israel and opposition to the Israeli occupation, to the point of cautious expressions of Palestinian solidarity. The lobby group is now The Address for politicians saying they want to condition aid to Israel because of the settlement project.

This spirit is in sharp contrast to years in which Democrats waffled on these issues, and J Street helped them waffle.

In fact, the most interesting moments at the conference came when Democratic officials had human rights epiphanies, expressing regrets about what they had not done when they had power to oppose those violations. One confessor, NY City Councilman Brad Lander, even read his epiphany from his smartphone!

Former Obama foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes said he regretted not doing more about the awful conditions in Gaza.

I’m glad you [Mayor Pete Buttigieg] brought up Gaza. Obviously, when we were in government in the Obama administration, the security challenge is well known, the threat posed by Hamas– well established– the Iron Dome system– very important I think in protecting Israelis against rockets fired from Gaza. At the same time, I look back on regret at the intolerable humanitarian situation in Gaza. Really just horrific conditions that people are living under. As you kind of alluded to.

Let’s reflect that Rhodes helped kill the Goldstone Report that criticized Israel for human rights crimes in 2008-2009 in Gaza, and formulated policy for an administration that expressed only mild criticisms of the Israeli blockade of the strip even as international bodies were telling us that conditions there are unlivable.

Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman who now does a podcast with Rhodes, said that Obama was wrong to throw the country into the Yemen war in 2015. Vietor offered that confession in the midst of criticizing politicians and businessmen who visit Saudi Arabia and send the message that money is more important than values.

I say this with considerable humility given that President Obama went to Saudi Arabia multiple times. He initially supported the civil war in Yemen, which was wrong and has proven to be a humanitarian disaster.

(Rhodes nodded during the first part of the confession, then went stony-faced on Yemen, which he justifies in his recent book as a fight against al Qaeda).

The most maddening confession came when Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Israel/Palestine negotiations in John Kerry’s State Department, gave a wrenching talk about what the occupation is doing to Palestinians. This primer, which Lowenstein is said to have presented on Capitol Hill, is excellent.

It included his repeated outrage that there are “two different systems” in the West Bank for Palestinians and Jews, entailing separate roads and laws, and that is in essence apartheid, though he didn’t use that word. “You can call that whatever you want,” he said twice. Lowenstein also said he had taken John Kerry in cognito to a checkpoint outside Ramallah (presumably Qalandiya) so he could experience what Palestinians do; and he and the secretary spent an hour and a half waiting to great frustration.

The idea that Palestinians can have economic development under this system is “a joke,” Lowenstein said.

“We fought them on settlements every day,” Lowenstein said.

Really? During the Obama administration, settlements just kept increasing all the time and the Obama administration increased military aid to Israel to an all-time high.

Lowenstein’s outrage is a bit like Rhodes repeatedly bragging during the conference about the Obama administration abstaining on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning settlements– in December 2016, at the very end of the administration. Even when John Kerry gave his famous speech at the end of the administration damning settlement expansion and warning about the end of the two-state solution, he left out what he and Lowenstein saw and knew about checkpoints and apartheid. Lowenstein has sure waited a long time to bear witness.

Lowenstein also said, “I believe very strongly in a Jewish state,” and it would be “unfathomable to me” if Israel ceased to exist as one.

The most poignant confession of all came when NY City Councilman Brad Lander, a tiger for Israel in New York, apologized for not having been where he “should have been.” as J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami put it, on the Israel Palestine question. Lander read his confession from his smartphone:

I’ll try to be really honest here. For elected officials and definitely for Jewish progressive Democrats like me who on the one hand consider ourselves progressive Zionists and believe proudly in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state on the one hand and who on the other hand hate the occupation and care deeply about the human rights of Palestinians, the political incentives are just to keep your mouth zipped tightly shut, and that’s really what I did for most of a my decade in office– to try to calibrate every tweet so carefully that you say almost nothing at all. And I will say and I am grateful to both J Street and New Israel Fund for this, the progressive to progressive retreat [these organizations staged with Israelis and Palestinians and young non-Zionist Jews] was really an important moment for me in building relationships…

I was pushed to find more courage. And I’ve been taking a really honest look at what I had been up to. and I feel like over the last decade, I have  spent more time policing the BDS line than I have opposing the occupation, standing up for human rights of Palestinians and building real solidarity with progressives in Israel and Palestine. And it is out of the set of relationships built there and in the past year that I feel required to and have committed to do more. So I wrote the piece in Buzzfeed you [Ben-Ami] mentioned calling for better relations between left and center left because we cannot let our divisions mean that authoritarian rightwing populists exploit them and build more power. Later when I saw Bernie Sanders stand before that Jews Against the Occupation sign that IfNotNow had out there, I knew I had to do that too.

These confessions must be considered achievements of J Street. As maddening as they are given the Politician’s 20-20 hindsight on Not Bearing Witness, these statements are important reflections in the careers of Ben Rhodes, Tommy Vietor, Frank Lowenstein, and Brad Lander; and J Street deserves credit for staging them.

The natural question is, Why did this come about now?

The answer is threefold: Trump politicized support for Israel and allowed Democrats to become more critical of Israeli policy at last. The progressive base rose inside the Democratic left pushing Democrats to get more with-it; Lander praised AOC and Rashida Tlaib. And a Jewish organization arose, IfNotNow, that has been sharply critical of Israel on J Street’s left, but as a communal Jewish group– in essence the children of J Street’s board. Brad Lander also praised IfNotNow at length.

J Street now truly represents the American Jewish Democratic community on Israel: ardently supportive/ashamed. I’ll report more on J Street’s political culture in the next day or so.

[Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net,a Journal of News & Opinion About Palestine, Israel, and the United States.]