Upon leaving office in 2004, Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings said what many of his colleagues surely felt: “You can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of a new lobbying group, J Street, plans to change that.
Ben-Ami told reporters during J Street’s launch, “The term, ‘pro-Israel’ has been hijacked by those who hold views that a majority of Americans—Jews and non-Jews alike—oppose, whether supporting the war in Iraq, beating the drums for war with Iran, or putting obstacles in the path to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Once dedicated to the goal of strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel, groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have lately seemed more interested in strengthening the hand of Likud in Israel while advancing the arguments of neoconservatives in Washington.
David Kimche, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and a supporter of J Street, outlined the need for an alternative in the Jerusalem Post: “AIPAC has become more militant than the Israeli government. Its messages reflect more the oppositionist Likud doctrine than the moderate stance of Prime Minister Olmert. Moreover, whereas â€¦ some 80 percent of the Jewish voters traditionally cast their votes for the Democrats, AIPAC is geared to an extreme-right-wing agenda, often more in line with the Jewish neo-cons than with the majority of American Jews.”
“They have come to promote another agenda,” Ben-Ami says, “Our agenda is that we believe the security of Israel, the survival of Israel, depends in large measure on whether or not it can resolve these conflicts peacefully with its neighbors. This is also in America’s best interest.”
J Street has two components: an advocacy group that will try to open America’s debate about Israel and a PAC that will be able to make political donations. Of course, the “J” in the name evokes the predominantly Jewish character of the organization, but it has other connotations. “J” is missing from the alphabetically named streets of D.C.—the city’s planner, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, omitted it from his design as an insult to Supreme Court Justice John Jay. If such an avenue did exist, it would run parallel to K Street, the address that is synonymous with the federal city’s most powerful lobbies.
Billionaire George Soros was briefly associated with the project but pulled out before the launch so that the new group would not be saddled with his controversial, and left-wing, associations. Still, J Street has raised nearly $1.9 million for its first year—impressive for a start-up. More impressive is the list of prominent Israelis who have signed a letter of support. The roster includes military men like Maj. Gen. Amos Lapidot, former head of the Israeli Air Force, and Maj. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former chief of staff of the IDF; politicians like Amran Mitzna, former head of the Labor Party; and religious figures like Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kehilat Kol haNeshama in Jerusalem.
Another signatory, Daniel Levy, is a member of J Street’s advisory council and was part of the Israeli delegation to the Taba Summit with the Palestinians in January 2001. Levy says, “The easiest thing the J Street people found in the lead up to the launch was getting that list of top-notch Israelis in support.”
But that doesn’t guarantee that they will be able to effect a revolution in American politics. AIPAC’s operating budget is 50 times larger than J Street’s, and it has a formidable reputation to match. One senator anonymously told a Washington Post reporter in 1991, “My colleagues think AIPAC is a very, very powerful organization that is ruthless, and very, very alert.” In 2002, Morris Amitay, a former director of AIPAC, expressed perfect confidence in his group’s position on Capitol Hill: “I don’t see any prospect that any member of the U.S. Congress, the House or Senate, would say, ‘Let’s take a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians and negotiate a peace agreement.’” Crossing the Israel lobby, Amitay continued, would be “politically suicidal.”
Ben-Ami laughs at the outsized nature of his task, “No question it’s a David versus Goliath situation. â€¦ [J Street] will be outmanned, outgunned, and outfunded.”
An obvious question arises: Since AIPAC’s leadership has historically reflected the interests of the Israeli government and then pitched its policies in terms that are ideologically compatible with the White House, wouldn’t the election of a Labor government in Tel Aviv and a Democratic one in Washington steer AIPAC away from its hawkish position? Critics of the powerful lobby say no, contending that AIPAC’s leaders are too paranoid about the future security of Israel and have committed themselves to an ideology that abhors peacemaking.
M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum, points to a generation gap among the traditional Jewish American lobbying groups. “AIPAC and ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] mostly represent older Jews, who live in a world where Israel is very fragile and is always afraid for its life,” he says. “It’s an old paradigm for an old generation.” This leads these groups to separate themselves from the bulk of American Jews and embrace extremist Christians: “The AIPAC side is way, way out of step with Jewish opinion. And that is why they’ve turned so heavily to the Christian Right. Who is both pro-Israel and against the two-state solution? John Hagee. That’s why he was at their conference last year.”
Levy agrees that a fundamental change in direction of Jewish lobbying groups makes other voices necessary. “The mainstream pro-Israel camp has decided so brazenly to throw its lot in with neoconservative ideologues within this administration and with the far Right dispensationalist Christian Zionists, and this unholy triangle has pulled things so much to the right-wing direction that we are desperately in need of a corrective. And we’re in a time when the Middle East is not some low-level priority that the United States can delve into or not. This is affecting Iran policy, Iraq exit-strategy—it affects how you look at the entire Muslim world and political Islam.”
Further, Levy argues that a new voice is vital in America because the debate in Israel is changing. “Looking at it from an Israeli perspective, it’s very difficult to trot out that line, ‘Whatever is good for the Israeli government of the day, that’s what American Jews, or Israel’s friends in America, should be supporting.’ The fact is, Israelis are divided today. If you stick to that old line, on one day you’ll say, ‘Settle the land, maintain the occupation.’ And the next day, ‘Settlements are bad, we need a two-state solution or Israel is finished.’” When everything in Israeli politics is up for grabs, Levy says, it’s not good enough to say, “Look, you’ve just got to be pro-Israel.”
The starting point, he adds, is understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of an occupation—one that places tremendous financial, military, and moral burdens on the occupier, Israel, and incites hatred and terrorism against America. Levy’s critics respond that the fault is not with Israelis who are trying to maintain security but with Arabs who reject the existence of Israel altogether.
Morton Klein is one of those critics. The president of the Zionist Organization of America believes J Street is just another group ready to sell out Israel’s interests. He asks rhetorically why they exist at all, when AIPAC “already says that Abbas is a voice for peace and already advocates for a two-state solution. What exactly makes them different? They won’t tell you that they want one-sided concessions [from Israel]. That is clearly what they support. â€¦ We gave them Gaza, and what did we get in return? More rockets fired into Israel.” Klein points to continued intransigence on the part of Palestinian leadership, noting that the Oslo Accords require the PLO to discontinue its incitement of terror. “Look at what they teach their children, in the textbooks.” Klein chastises J Street for not recognizing that Palestinian political leaders hang posters that explicitly refer to the destruction of Israel: “Why don’t they denounce this? It’s every appeasement play in the book.” He refers to one of J Street’s supporters, Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knessett, as a “traitor to Israel.”
Rosenberg counters that smear tactics don’t work anymore: “The AIPAC side has never met Palestinian leadership that they consider credible. Period. They always say, ‘Well, what about the textbooks—that they’re anti-Semitic.’ What about this preacher who said this or that?’ The Israelis have their crazies, too. But peace is made by the moderates.”
Levy, who made his reputation trying to negotiate peace, also dismisses the call to panic at the appearance of each hostile poster or preacher. “The idea that an occupied people must first provide security to the occupier and then under those conditions you do de-occupation doesn’t exist in the real world. That’s being unserious about Israeli security. Yes, there is incitement. And yes, something should be done about it on all sides. But if you think that 580 obstacles to freedom of movement in the West Bank, the humiliation of checkpoints, and the expansion of settlements are not factors that incite Palestinians to consider violent approaches, but something shown on a TV station that almost no one watches is, then you are just not serious.” Referring to Al Aqsa’s children’s program about a jihadi mouse, Levy calls this “the Mickey Mouse approach to fighting terrorism.”
Ben-Ami is confident that J Street won’t be smeared as “an enemy of Israel” composed of “self-hating Jews,” noting that his grandparents were a founding family of Tel Aviv, that his relatives suffered in the Holocaust, and that while living in Israel he was almost killed in a terror attack. “Of course, Marty Peretz, Alan Dershowitz, the folks at Commentary and The Weekly Standard are going to take their shots,” he admits, “but they’re not going to be able to shout us down.” Levy believes that confidence will be contagious. “I think other groups that care about this issue feel more comfortable expressing a sensible position on the Middle East when there is also a very credible and hopefully very loud Jewish voice saying, ‘This is the most pro-American and pro-Israeli position you can take’â€¦ just like you can be a pro-American patriot and be against bombing Iran and staying in Iraq for 100 years.”
But changing policies and a political culture that shivers at the word “evenhanded” will take more than confidence. One senate staffer who wished to remain anonymous pointed to the real clout of groups like AIPAC: “Look at John Sununu’s race in New Hampshire.” Pro-Israel PACs lavished $44,000 on his would-be opponent Katrina Swett, the daughter of Tom Lantos, a hawkish supporter of Israel. Now that Swett has dropped out, they will probably back Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who received over $72,000 from these same organizations to oppose Sununu in 2002. AIPAC also gave embattled Republican Norm Coleman $31,000 last year. If money talks, J Street will make its first peep when it writes a check to Coleman’s pro-peace opponent, Al Franken.
One Middle East adviser to a GOP senator told TAC that J Street can make a difference even while it’s underfunded. “If you are a junior staff member for a member of Congress or a senator and someone hands you something and says, ‘This is good, and it will pass, and we’d like to have your support,’ and it’s a resolution that says the Six Day War was a great thing, it will suddenly have 60 cosponsors. J Street can be the group to make the other call and say, ‘We can reword this to honor the soldiers who died, but also the people who died on the other side as well and mention that the issues in that conflict are still unresolved.’” These gestures may seem like a small thing to the average congressman, but “the people in the region see them as important signs of America’s attitude.”
Despite Ben-Ami’s confidence that his background and the credibility of J Street’s supporters insulate his group from the worst smears, it has already been called anti-Israel. Commentary referred to its policies as “paternalism” and charged it with “diplomatic fetishism.” But Ben-Ami is unfazed: “We want to talk about the issues and a have a reality-based discussion. If you want to answer our arguments by calling us names, that’s fine. But we’re going to win the argument.”