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Nipping at AIPAC's heels

Nipping at AIPAC's heels


By Bill Berkowitz

'J Street,' a new liberal Jewish organization, hopes to challenge AIPAC's influence over U.S.-Israeli affairs

In its entry on the "The Little Engine That Could," Wikipedia notes that "the moralistic children's story ... is used to teach children the value of optimism." Like the little engine that could, "J Street," a new organization made up of prominent U.S. and Israeli Jews that hopes to shift the debate over the Middle East and U.S.-Israeli policy away from the conservative positions espoused by the mighty American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC - website) and towards a pro-peace position, must recognize that it has a huge hill to climb.

And one part of climbing that hill will be to redefine what it means to be "pro-Israel," a term that conservative Jewish and evangelical Christian organizations have claimed for their own.

"For too long, the loudest American voices on Israel have come from the far right," noted Jeremy Ben-Ami, a founder and director of both J Street (website), chartered as a 501(c)(4) organization, and its political-action affiliate, JStreetPac, a political action committee focusing on campaign funding.

"Those voices have claimed that the only way to be pro-Israel is to support military responses to political problems, to refuse to engage one's adversaries in dialogue and to put off the day of reckoning when hard compromises will be required to achieve a peaceful and secure future for Israel and the entire Middle East," he told reporters via teleconference in mid-April.

"These are not the kind of smart, tough views that serve the long-term interests of the state of Israel, of the United States -- or frankly, the American Jewish community," Ben-Ami, until recently, senior vice president in the Washington office of Fenton Communications, added.

According to The Jewish Week's James D. Besser, J Street's initial emphasis will be on the PAC side. The group will "endorse candidates in a limited number of House and Senate races, and raise money," said Ben-Ami. "That, for the first time, will demonstrate that there is meaningful political support for elected officials and candidates who take a realistic view of these issues and on the need for active engagement in the peace process."

Calling itself "A new pro-peace, pro-Israel political voice," the new organization's website points out that "For too long, the only voices politicians and policy makers have heard on American policy toward Israel and the Middle East have been from the far right. It is high time that mainstream pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fought back for real peace and security."

AIPAC isn't the only wing of the conservative movement that J Street might have to contend with. Pastor John Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is a conservative Christian evangelical lobbying group that according to writer Robert Weitzel, is seen by Hagee "as the Christian version of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee."

Both AIPAC and CUFI have expressed deep concerns about any peace agreement that might be reached between Israel and the Palestinians. And both have focused their ire against Iran.

J Street's leadership
J Street's leadership includes: Ben-Ami, a former senior domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton and former policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean; Alan Solomont, a former finance director to the Democratic National Committee; Hannah Rosenthal, former Executive Director to the Jewish Council on Public Affairs; Victor Kovner, former New York City Corporation Counsel; and Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

According to the National Journal, advisors to the group include Debra DeLee, the CEO of Americans for Peace Now and a former chair of the Democratic National Committee; Marcia Freedman, an American-born former member of the Israeli Knesset and a founder of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; and several activists with ties to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama of Illinois -- including Robert Malley, a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign. The National Journal reported that "Billionaire and controversial liberal activist George Soros, a party to the early talks about forming a new group, is reportedly no longer involved, in part, sources say, because of concerns that his participation might be a lightning rod for critics."

"It's time for members of Congress in particular and the administration to hear much more loudly from those of us in the American Jewish community that the only way to protect Israel's security and for that matter American security interests as well is to support relentlessly a negotiated settlement to the Israeli Palestinian conflict," Solomont said in a statement. "Unfortunately other voices are often heard more loudly and I think that distracts members of Congress and the administration from pursuing what I think everyone recognizes as the solution to this conflict."

The group's advisory counsel is made up of 100 American members, and it has gathered letters of support from a prestigious group of former Israeli security and diplomatic officials, including the former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Maj. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amos Lapidot, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, two former director generals of the Israeli foreign ministry David Kimche and Alon Liel, former Knesset speaker Avram Burg, and Dalia Rabin, daughter of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and a former member of the Israeli Knesset and deputy defense minister.

In a letter to J Street founders, the Israeli leaders wrote: "Now more than ever, true friendship requires strong American leadership and engagement to move the sides toward a comprehensive two-state solution. With time running out, business-as-usual will not do."

'Following the MoveOn model,' says Ben-Ami
As a number of other recently-formed organizations have indicated -- including such conservative groups as Freedom's Watch and Vanguard.org -- J Street intends to follow the model of MoveOn.org.

Currently working out of his home, MojoBlog reported that "the organization has no headquarters and doesn't plan for one, and plans to operate heavily in the online world," according to Ben-Ami. "We're following the MoveOn model, of being virtual, and heavily online," Ben-Ami told MoJoBlog's Laura Rozen. "Part of our goal and plan in the coming year is to develop an online presence in the way that Obama and Dean and MoveOn have done ... and to tap into that and have a large base of small donors."

According to Mojo Blog, J Street has raised half of its $1.5 million initial budget. That's a far cry from the reported $100 million that AIPAC is sitting on. AIPAC also has an estimated 100,000 member and "18 offices around the country, including a new Washington headquarters funded, sources say, by Las Vegas Casino mogul and conservative philanthropist Sheldon Adelson," who is also a major funder of Freedom's Watch.

J Street will also be involved with lobbying, "and here the group will tread carefully to avoid stepping on the toes of the two dovish groups that have been building up their own Capitol Hill operations in recent years -- IPF [Israel Policy Forum] and Americans for Peace Now (APN)," the Jewish Week reported.

"Our focus will not be on what IPF and APN do on the policy, but to try to connect the dots," Ben-Ami said. "We will work to help people on Capitol Hill understand that people they know in their own districts who happen to be Jewish actually think more like us than the other side."

AIPAC's former longtime executive director Tom Dine, who also serves as a consultant for IPF and is on the Board of Trustees of Freedom House, said it will take "a generation or two" for the group to have the kind of impact AIPAC has.

"From my perspective, the more Americans, and the more American Jews, who participate in the political process, the better," said Dine, who was recently replaced as CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told the National Journal that "People who tend to be in favor of the peace process tend to be more liberal," and those who are "single-issue Israel supporters tend to be more hawkish -- for lots of religious and cultural reasons."

Saperstein, who said he supported the goals of J Street, pointed out that "People are beginning to feel that the parameters of the peace process are becoming clear." Those opposed to a divided Jerusalem are "drawing a line in the sand," while the more-liberal groups "sense that the window is closing" for a two-state solution.

In the end, the little engine that could succeeded in pulling the train over the mountain while repeating its motto: "I-think-I-can". Perhaps this would make an apt mantra for J Street.

*************

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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