Today marks two months since the October 7 attacks, each day filled with pain and grief as J Street remembers the victims of Hamas’ barbaric attack – including family, friends and colleagues.
J Street has been unwavering in support of Israel’s right – and the country’s moral obligation – to respond to this attack, to defend itself and to ensure that Israeli civilians never again come under threat from Hamas’s terror stronghold in Gaza.
The past two months have also brought brutal and horrific suffering to the people of Gaza, behind whom Hamas hides. The scope of the unfolding humanitarian disaster and civilian casualties is nearly unfathomable.
We have been unequivocal that Israel’s military response must accord with international law, centering the protection of civilians and the provision of requisite humanitarian assistance. We were among the first to call for humanitarian pauses to facilitate the release of hostages – which remains a first priority – and urgently increase the flow of assistance to the people of Gaza.
Were there a path to an immediate end to the fighting – with Hamas unconditionally releasing all hostages, laying down its arms and arranging for its leaders to depart Gaza – we would support that path. Barring this, we remain convinced that long-term Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution demands removal of Hamas from operational control of Gaza.
While our belief in the legitimacy of a military operation remains unchanged, our support for the way in which that operation is conducted is not without limits.
As we have supported Israel’s military operation, we have repeatedly said that Israeli forces must do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties, maximize humanitarian aid and clamp down on both settler and military violence against civilians on the West Bank. We have also urged the Biden administration to seek Israel’s commitment to a vision for the ‘day after’ the fighting that leads toward Palestinian freedom and independence.
Most of what we have asked has, in fact, become US policy. The requests we have outlined have been made of Israel, both publicly and privately by the Biden administration. And our views on these matters have been echoed by the majority of Democrats in the Senate and House.
However, since fighting restarted last week, Israeli forces have resumed large-scale bombing and again cut or significantly reduced vital aid flows. Areas designated as “safe” for civilians have been bombed, and rising levels of disease, hunger and death have become both strategically and morally unacceptable.
We do not see that it is in the strategic interest of the state of Israel to pursue this campaign in a manner that generates more terrorists than it eliminates, alienates nearly the entire international community and doesn’t actually advance the goals of the war.
We are fast approaching a moment of truth: What happens if the Netanyahu government continues to ignore the admonitions and guardrails that J Street, the Biden administration and many Americans – Jewish and not – support?
In our view, it is untenable for any ally receiving generous American economic, military and diplomatic support to act in a way that disregards the United States and our goals, values and interests.
The Prime Minister and the extremists in his Cabinet show no interest in cracking down on lawless and thuggish violence on the West Bank, in opening up anywhere near sufficient channels for humanitarian assistance in Gaza or in minimizing the level of civilian casualties there – even as we recognize that Hamas itself has placed civilians in the crossfire.
Perhaps most significant, the Netanyahu government has made clear it has no interest in establishing an independent Palestinian state at any point – the only conceivable long-term solution to the underlying conflict.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu fails to modify the nature of the military campaign or to take the steps urged by the United States, J Street will call on the Biden administration to change course. Over decades, the US has built up considerable leverage and capital with Israel, and the President should be prepared to wield it in telling Israel that the time has come to stop this all-out military campaign.
This is not a step we will take lightly. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the US must remain steadfast in its commitment to ensuring Israel’s safety, securing the release of hostages and working toward the defeat of Hamas and other terror groups.
But, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has warned, the way the Netanyahu government is pursuing its current campaign threatens to lead to “strategic defeat.” This is a risk not just for the US, but for Israel and the Jewish people.
We urge that Israel listen to US officials and recalibrate its military approach to be more strategic, targeted and limited, that there be openness to renewed negotiation for release of the remaining hostages, and that discussions begin now toward establishing the kind of transitional and multinational authority that would assume control of Gaza from Israeli forces post conflict.
This is a moment of truth for the US-Israel relationship. White House admonitions on these critical matters are not idle suggestions to be considered and ignored or dismissed out of hand. US security assistance is not an entitlement program to be provided in the form of a blank check.
The President has earned – deservedly – the friendship and the trust of the Israeli people. He should tap into the wellspring of good will to paint for the Israeli people a picture of the future that can be built for Israel in the Middle East and globally if it commits to what the United States is asking.
If we do not see evidence soon that the government of Israel is, in fact, making meaningful changes to its conduct of the war and its attitudes regarding post-war arrangements, then J Street will no longer be able to provide our organizational support for the current military campaign.