Nearly two years ago, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) opened an Israel office in Jerusalem. The director of the office, Jeff Daube, made aliyah after years of working with organizations like AIPAC, NORPAC, CAMERA and Palestinian Media Watch as well as lobbying extensively on Capitol Hill.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Daube made headlines when he was detained by Israeli police for handing out factual booklets about Fatah, which the police deemed “seditious,” and later with the opening of a ZOA branch at the Shalom House in Hebron in an effort to prevent the eviction of Jewish settlers there.
Daube: In the U.S. I worked with many established organizations and activist groups and extensively with leaders in Congress. Over the years of advocacy and networking, I developed an appreciation for the importance of relationship building. A significant portion of my first 20 months in Israel has been spent cultivating those relationships and establishing key contacts. In Israel, where whom you know is perhaps more important than what you know, this is a necessary strategy for achieving one’s political objectives.
What are the goals of the ZOA’s Israel office?
The ZOA in Israel and in the U.S. share the same basic goals: strengthening the bond between our two countries, raising Zionist consciousness, and doing everything possible to ensure the security of Israel. But it didn’t take long for me to decide it would be a mistake to try and duplicate much of the successful work of the U.S. operation.
Rather, I came to view my role here as a unique opportunity to create a synergy between our respective communities, leaderships and institutions. For example, since the establishment of the Netanyahu government I’ve met regularly with a number of members of Knesset and government ministers.
The present Israeli government is much more inclined to share the ZOA perspective on security-related issues than previous governments, and I share with them the feedback I get from my contacts in Congress. My aim, specifically, is to underline for the decision makers and policymakers here that, despite recent setbacks, there is still significant consensus to support Israel should it decide to take more resolute positions.
What specific projects are you currently working on?
My emphasis is on increasing the level of interactivity between members of Knesset and like-minded members of Congress. Because Israeli legislators do not have the typical 18 or more specialists working on each of their staffs as do their counterparts in Washington, they are not necessarily as conversant on all of the issues as we might like them to be, nor do they have in-house experts to guide them when their own knowledge falls short.
I try to improve information access and education in this milieu, especially for junior members of the Knesset, so they can be more compelling presenters of Israeli government policy in their dealings with congressional leaders.
Engaging U.S. leadership not only means providing communication and meeting opportunities between them and Israeli decision makers, it also entails taking them to disputed areas to show how critically important land is to Israel’s security and helping them understand that a Jew has the moral, legal and historical right to live wherever he or she chooses, especially in our biblical heartland.
My best hope for influencing the decision-making process in the halls of power in both countries regarding Israeli security would be via Americans Vote Israel, a parallel grassroots program meant to tap into the enormous political leverage that even a fraction of the 250,000 American citizens living here could provide. We have been steadily mobilizing this community, along with their families, friends and colleagues in the U.S., to engage them further in the political processes both here and abroad.
You’ve been working with American politicians for a long time. Do you see any change in their support for Israel since Obama took office, especially among Democrats?
I’ve made dozens of visits to Capitol Hill and always encountered consistent and strong bipartisan support on our issues. Of course, there may have been some differences with certain members of Congress, but overall we could always count on broad support. Although I am no longer pounding the marble in the Rayburn or Hart Buildings, I still try to keep my finger on the Beltway pulse and I do sense some weakening of support for Israel in general, but particularly among Democrats.
Often when I look at the results of a vote on an Israel-related bill or resolution, I find the overwhelming majority voting against Israel to be Democrats. A recent example: Earlier this year a resolution in support of Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza passed the House 390-5 with 22 members registering “present.” Of the 27 not voting in favor, 26 were Democrats and one was a nominal Republican, Ron Paul.
Unlike in the ’50s and ’60s, when Democrats were more supportive of Israel, there is now, according to poll after poll, a marked and significant gap between vigorous Republican and tepid Democratic support for Israel. Given Obama’s expressed interest in “putting daylight” between his administration and Israel, I would hope the American Jewish community will reevaluate its near monolithic support for one party.
One can presumably place the relatively new J Street on the opposite end of the spectrum from the ZOA. How does J Street (or similar groups in Israel) impact the ZOA Israel office?
ZOA in the U.S. has done a great job raising consciousness about the dangers of J Street, a counterproductive upstart that has already managed to undermine Israel’s influence on international policy in Washington. Unfortunately, I have been forced to devote a portion of my time – better spent on issues like Iran’s nuclearization – with MKs, other organizations, and the public, explaining how the policies of J Street and like-minded groups are, in fact, inimical to the security interests of the State of Israel.
I have already contacted members of Congress with whom I maintain close ties to respectfully suggest they limit their engagement with this organization that is anything but “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace.” I am also encouraging members of Knesset to do the same. I can’t emphasize enough the potential benefits of having Israeli and U.S. leaders communicate directly with one another to minimize the negative messages from groups like J Street and their minority cohorts in both countries.
What do you perceive as the main difference between American and Israeli politicians?
That is a subject for a thesis! The main differences between Israeli and American politicians involve accountability and style. Because Israeli politicians do not have specific constituencies to which they are continually answerable, they tend to be less attuned to the wishes of their polity. One of my main projects here, organizing the American-Israeli community into a cohesive political force, may yield some dividends in this regard someday.
Another difference is in the Israeli politicians’ readiness to confront an issue head on. Political culture on the Hill demands a certain protocol, with staffers playing a very significant role.
Israeli politicians, on the other hand, with their aides often removed from the conversation, usually cut to the chase. They ask tough questions and expect direct and thoughtful answers.
Also, as with everything else here, the political culture is more informal than in the U.S. – there is a “we’re all in this together” feeling about the issues.