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J Street, New Israel Peace Lobby Launches

The following is the Comment is Free article published last Tuesday when J Street launched. Before you read it, if you haven’t already visited the J Street site to join its mailing list, please consider doing so. And even more important, consider making a generous donation so J Street can begin to make a difference in Congress by promoting candidates who will engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pressure our next president to make every effort to promote peace, not war. Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their country if we are ever to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Recently, I attended a private Seattle dinner featuring J Street co-founders Daniel Levy and Jeremy Ben Ami. On April 15th, J Street will launch. It will be the first American Jewish PAC dedicated to promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace:

For too long, the primary and often only voices policy makers and politicians have heard regarding American policy toward Israel and the Middle East have been those of a vocal minority at the far-right of American society.

…Neoconservative, right-wing Jewish leaders and radical Christian Zionists have turned their definition of “pro-Israel” into a driving force in the American political process…

These voices do not…represent the mainstream of American Jews or the broader community that cares about Israel or American interests in the Middle East. Their efforts have skewed American policy, undermined Israeli and American interests, and constrained the domestic political and public debate about American foreign policy.

It is time for the mainstream of Americans–Jews and others–to establish a bold, political voice that advocates for the best interests of the U.S. and Israel, including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps, and for American policy that will lead to real security for Israelis, Americans and the entire Middle East.

J Street proposes an overarching U.S. approach to the Middle East that eschews military conflict and embraces diplomatic negotiation; that advocates multilateralism over unilateralism; and dialogue over confrontation. It proposes negotiation with Syria and Iran rather than diplomatic isolation and threats. And it will advance these goals both in the legislative and electoral process as well as the media.

Daniel Levy is a British Jew and son of the leading fundraiser for Tony Blair’s Labor Party, Lord Levy. The younger Levy made aliyah to Israel in 1991, where he worked on the peace process with Labor governments. He moved to DC two years ago to become a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, where he writes the well-respected blog, Prospects for Peace. Levy is the passionate, thoughtful, philosophical member of the duo. He is the deep thinker who ponders the big questions. Ben Ami, a former deputy domestic policy advisor in the Clinton administration is the operations chief. He knows the campaigns and the politicians. He is inside the political process. They make a good team.

J Street plans to do two things. First, it will be a traditional PAC raising funds to support a limited number of candidates for Senate and Congressional races. Second, it will lobby for and against Israel-related bills and legislation. Regarding the PAC portion of its mandate: in its first year (the current election cycle), it hopes to raise around $300,000 to funnel into three to five races in which it can make a significant impact in swing districts. According to the co-founders, it sees no benefit in going after long-serving Democrats who take doctrinaire pro-AIPAC positions because they are too entrenched. Rather, J Street sees its best efforts devoted to choosing races in which there is a weak incumbent with an anti-peace agenda running against a candidate who is open to J Street’s political agenda. Norm Coleman is someone high on the group’s list since he is such a weak incumbent and is opposed by Al Franken, who is already sympathetic to a pro-peace agenda regarding the I-P conflict.

In the following (2010) election cycle, J Street hopes to raise several million dollars and target a slightly larger number of races. Ben Ami noted that he and Levy had studied two critical AIPAC campaigns against Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard. By cross-checking the donor lists they discovered that AIPAC wields an enormous amount of clout with a rather limited amount of donations (in the low millions).

However, it should be noted that AIPAC has a reach that extends far beyond merely punishing those it deems hostile to Israel. After all, it has a $60 million annual budget along with a deep volunteer base. Its power flows in many directions. In this sense, J Street really has its work cut out for itself.

The new group is studying AIPAC’s example and plans to use its tactics while turning them inside out on behalf of peace. Both co-founders reinforced that this effort is not meant to oppose, criticize or attack AIPAC. The idea is that there is room for AIPAC in this political debate while there is also room for a variety of other voices, including J Street.

Ben Ami, who was deputy domestic policy advisor in the Clinton administration, said they’d sounded out scores of politicians and their staffs about how J Street would be received. He is convinced that its message is welcomed with open arms almost universally. Of course, there will be some dyed in the wool Old School holdouts. But he believes that J Street is something the DC pols have been waiting for for a long time. They’ve been eager to break away from heterodoxy but needed the political cover to do so. J Street would help provide it for them.

In talking about what J Street planned to do differently from the mainstream Israel lobby organizations, I was heartened that it planned to pay lots of attention to voices of young people especially those represented by bloggers like Ezra Klein and Matt Ygleisias and others. Ben Ami sees the younger generation as the hope for the future as they haven’t yet bought “their father’s Oldsmobile” in terms of embracing the stereotypes and accepted wisdom of the established groups. The Israel lobby groups are heavily populated and led by the older generation and Jewish opinion surveys show that the younger generation is both more liberal on Israeli politics and more turned off by the Israel-centric issues dear to the heart of the Old School.

The J Street leaders also addressed their relationship with the three existing Jewish peace groups: Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek. They said that J Street would not duplicate their efforts nor was it meant to replace them. Rather, J Street is the next logical step in the development of a pro-peace political agenda in which candidates would be encouraged to take an independent look at the I-P conflict and throw out old orthodoxies.

Levy, in his talk to the dinner group, emphasized that while Israelis realized that they were primarily responsible for resolving the conflict, that they also needed a good swift kick in the rear end from an energized American Jewish community and U.S. president. An Israeli prime minister like Olmert might welcome pressure coming from America to adopt a more forthcoming approach to the idea of compromise. He could then turn around to the Liebermans (Avigdor, not Joe) on his right and say: “If you want to buck our American friends, be my guest. But where will you turn once you do and they’ve abandoned you?” Levy believes that this narrative will resonate in Israeli political circles.

In fact, the group has recruited a group of distinguished Israeli academics, political analysts and former senior military officers to sign a letter of support for J Street. Among others, it includes former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, and former directors general of the foreign ministry David Kimche, Alon Liel, and Uri Savir.

It’s always important with efforts like this to examine the board member names. There are of course leaders of the main American Jewish peace groups. There are rabbis and academics. But most important there are heavy hitter political donors (Alan Solomont), policy wonks (Rob Malley), U.S. ambassadors to Israel (Samuel Lewis), high level political operatives (Eli Pariser of Moveon), Hollywood liberals (Robert Greenwald), business leaders, George Soros’ top aide (Morton Halperin), and even a former Republican senator (Lincoln Chafee) and former Congressman (Tom Downey). The major political donors and business leaders are critical to provide the funding necessary to have an impact on political campaigns.

The group founders believe that Barack Obama and his staff “get” J Street’s perspective while they believe a Clinton candidacy might not advance J Street’s mission as aggressively. In particular, Ben Ami mentioned Tony Lake, Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor as someone who was probably responsible for the candidate’s bracing Cleveland speech in which he admonished American Jews not to believe that a pro-Israel presidential candidacy need also be pro-Likud.

I came away from the dinner heartened by the J Street effort. Trying to be a realist after feeling burned by previous similar efforts, I’m not yet firmly convinced it will succeed. But it is bold, ambitious, well thought out, and doable. Many other dovish political efforts in the past had one or even two of those qualities going for them, but few have had all of them. That is in J Street’s favor.

One big question will be how AIPAC responds to the new initiative. As the big kid on the block it has the most to lose from J Street becoming a major success. So it’s got to feel threatened in some way. My only question is whether it feels defensive and threatened enough that it would take on J Street in its infancy. Already, AIPAC’s former director Morris Amitay has denounced J Street in the pages of the Jewish Forward. Amitay seems to be a surrogate for the group, which doesn’t want to lay down a marker in public yet on the matter. It remains to be seen how the big guns of the right-wing Israel lobby like Malcolm Hoenlein and Abe Foxman will react. If they do, they will only be endorsing the idea that J Street is a force to be reckoned with.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • markrvogel April 25, 2008, 2:13 PM

    First, regarding the “$300,000 to funnel into three to five (2008) races,” how is that possible if the maximum you can give in any one race is $10,000 (except for the few states with runoffs where you can give $15,000)? Second, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee a key supporter? Third, opposing Sen. Norm Coleman’s reelection bid? Fourth, Abe Foxman is right-wing? Enough said. Mark R. Vogel

  • Richard Silverstein April 26, 2008, 12:30 AM

    @markrvogel: First, J Street is two things–both a PAC and a legislative lobbying group. It raises money for both.

    I didn’t know that moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee were treif according to AIPAC supporters like Mark.

    And yes, supporting Al Franken in his bid to unseat Norm Coleman will be delicious. Though I know again it will hurt your & AIPAC’s feelings because Norm is one of yr darlings.

    What is Abe Foxman? A flaming liberal?

    ‘Nuff said.

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