Thanks to reader Ann for pointing out a penetrating Salon article, The Other Israel Lobby, which describes progress made in forming a counter-AIPAC D.C. lobbying group of Jewish peace groups. The project has variously been called the “Soros Initiative” though the old man himself wisely wishes to avoid having himself and the organization conflated in the minds of the public. It would only give the fledging group more difficulty gaining traction by allowing the detractors to focus their fire on Soros himself rather than the substance of the group’s ideas.
The author, Gregory Levey, is a former speechwriter for Ehud Olmert and the Israeli UN Mission. He sat in a privileged position of power allowing him access both to Israeli and American Jewish politics. Which makes his analysis all the more striking. Levey notes that AIPAC’s power is beginning to wane. He suggests that if the new lobbying effort gets off the ground, AIPAC’s hegemony would be further weakened:
…Most American Jews, and many other American supporters of Israel, do not see eye-to-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the most hawkish, knee-jerk Israel supporters in the U.S. government — even if their presumed leadership, represented by AIPAC, often appears to do so. Moreover, AIPAC’s influence in Washington may soon begin to decline, as a powerful new alliance of left-leaning friends of Israel has begun to emerge, with the express aim of reshaping U.S. strategy on the region’s most intractable problem.
Levey continues by noting AIPAC’s recent defeat in Congress on the Palestinian Anti-Terror Bill which it moved heaven and earth to pass:
AIPAC suffered a relatively small but symbolic defeat this past year — one that may prove to have been a turning point. Earlier in the year, AIPAC put all its muscle behind a congressional bill called the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which even some pro-Israel observers called “draconian.” Going beyond even the Bush administration’s own hard-line stance on the Hamas-led Palestinian government, it would have essentially cut off all American contact with any element of the Palestinian leadership, and hampered the U.S. government’s ability to strengthen Palestinian moderates.
A group of small, left-leaning Jewish lobby groups, including the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace [Levey refers to Brit Tzedek] and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, banded together to battle AIPAC on the issue, and in the end were successful. A watered-down version of the bill was passed, with what they saw as the problematic language stripped away. An AIPAC official recently told me that AIPAC was satisfied with the softer bill’s passage — but it is quite clear that the incident represented a defeat for the organization.
It was, in fact, an impressive demonstration of what political cooperation and grass-roots advocacy can do. However, for these groups to replicate that success on a larger scale and with more of a substantive effect on U.S. foreign policy, there is a key missing element: real money.
Levey gets into the meat of his story by describing not only Soros’ involvement, but progress made to date in raising funds for the potential new group:
That is where billionaire financier George Soros may come in, along with a group of other left-leaning philanthropists, many of them Jewish. In the relatively close-knit Middle East lobbying community, it is something of an open secret that this past September, Morton Halperin, who served in both the Nixon and Clinton administrations and is now director of U.S. advocacy for Soros’ Open Society Institute, met with a group of lobbyists, political strategists and former politicians who are seeking to create a new well-funded, well-organized, left-leaning Israel lobby, as an alternative to AIPAC.
Several key figures in this group had been active in the effort to quash the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, and include Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former advisor to President Clinton, and Daniel Levy, a former special advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.
…In late October, Soros himself attended a follow-up meeting, along with liquor magnates Edgar and Charles Bronfman, former Democratic Rep. Mel Levine and others. The idea — by this point labeled the “Soros Initiative” — now began to gain traction and substance, with large sums of money being pledged by several parties. Several people involved have told me that there is now almost enough money firmly on the table to launch the new organization — an eight-figure dollar amount, they say, and that’s just for starters. Several people have told me that there is already work in progress to establish the organization’s core structure and operations.
Having been involved in countless Jewish peace groups over the past 40 years or so, I maintained a guarded optimism about this project grounded in a certain degree of skepticism that it could ever get off the ground. But when I hear that $10-million or more has been pledged to this effort, I know it is serious and not just a flash in the pan.
You knew there would have to be some snarky comments from AIPAC about this new development and sure enough Levey provides them:
An AIPAC insider repeatedly stressed to me that one reason this new group will never be able to compete with AIPAC is because AIPAC is bipartisan, while what he called the “Soros connection” shows that the new group will not be.
I have to laugh when AIPAC supporters try to pass that one off on the rest of us. AIPAC is bipartisan. Really. I guess it’s bipartisan if you concede that pro-war Democrats like Joe Lieberman are AIPAC darlings. Let’s take one issue as an example. AIPAC wants a good little war with Iran. They may not have come out and said it in any policy statement. But you’d have to be deaf and blind not to realize that they’re one of the pressure groups leading the charge in favor of bombing Iran. Democrats are none too happy with this notion. So how is AIPAC bipartisan if the only support it gets for dropping the big one on Iran is from neocons and their Republican friends with a few pro-war Dems thrown in to spice it up a bit?
The snark continues:
The AIPAC insider said that he believes the “Soros Initiative” is little more than a fundraising drive to raise money for some impoverished organizations that “have to define themselves in opposition to something.”
“Impoverished.” Isn’t that an interesting comment coming from an activist for an organization with a $70 million operating budget. I guess the $2-million annual budget of Israel Policy Forum does pale in comparison. But guess what? A $2-million organization gave a $70 million organization one helluva bloody nose during the legislative battle I described above.
Besides, if the pro-peace lobbying group gets off the ground it will likely either subsume the other smaller peace groups helping to found it; or it will leave them aside as it grows into an independent entity. The goal of the initiative is not merely to make IPF an $3 million organization. The goal is to grow the Israeli-Palestinian peace lobby exponentially. It is not meant to make a few “impoverished” groups less impoverished. It is meant to challenge AIPAC’s false claim to represent all of American Jewry when it comes to Israel. That’s a big and worthy ambition.
There is, of course, disagreement among the founders about the approach they should take to AIPAC:
…A contentious issue…is exactly how much the new organization would allow itself to be seen as being in direct opposition to AIPAC. At least four of the players involved have told me that they intend to be an “alternative,” but not an “opposition.” Still, one of those present at the early meetings said that he sees his organization as “the anti-AIPAC.” Levy, meanwhile, said simply that if “there are differences in policy, those will be expressed in one group advocating one thing and another advocating another thing.” This would at least be an improvement, he said, over the past, when Israeli leaders who honestly sought to make peace “pulled their hair out because of the lack of support from the Jewish community in the United States.”
David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center, and a power player in the national Jewish leadership and one of those involved in planning the new group, is petrified of crossing swords with AIPAC. Every time anyone says anything along these lines Saperstein is heard to say: “Shah, shtill!” Nevertheless, it would be entirely unrealistic and unfortunate for anyone associated with this effort to believe that AIPAC and the new lobby will coexist peacefully and harmoniously. If they do, it will mean that there is something very wrong.