With a fresh outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine, a battle of a different sort is being waged in Washington between various interests in Mideast policy circles.
As Israeli air strikes continue to pummel the Gaza Strip for a fourth day and crude homemade rockets launched by Palestinian militants land in Israeli towns near the densely populated and besieged Strip, Jewish groups in the U.S. are taking two distinctly differing tacks at addressing the latest Middle East bloodshed.
Some of what are traditionally thought of as pro-Israel groups are undertaking a major public relations campaign to support the bombing runs against Hamas that have claimed more than 370 Palestinian lives largely parroting the Israeli government line that the attacks are a justified defense of Israelis.
The American Jewish Committee "expressed strong support for Israel in its military operation aimed at terrorist targets in Gaza."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) urged U.S. leadership to "stand firmly with Israel as it strives to defend itself."
In addition to a flurry of press releases, officials from the groups are making regular appearances in the media and organizing conference calls.
But instead of offering unquestioning support of Israel’s latest military venture in the decades-long conflict, four major Jewish organizations are calling for an immediate end to the bombings, and for humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip.
One of the groups, Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the Israel-based Peace Now, called for "the government of Israel to end its military operation in the Gaza Strip and to act toward achieving a cease-fire."
And Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, called on the outgoing Bush administration "to initiate an international effort aimed at negotiating an immediate cease-fire."
These strong statements, along with ones from J Street (the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), are in sharp contrast to many of the more hawkish traditional pro-Israel groups, who make no mention of a cessation of armed hostilities. The confident assertions from the four groups are a relatively new sort of campaign.
"You see a voice that is increasingly clear and has a significant resonance in the American Jewish community, and beyond the Jewish community, that takes a position, stakes it grounds, and won’t be intimidated," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and the director of New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force, one of the four groups.
"This is an important position to be taking," he told IPS. "It’s moving the ball forward on redefining the parameters of the debate on what it means to be responsibly and thoughtfully rather than reflexively pro-Israel."
The move by the groups is in many ways the culmination of a public relations effort of its own that seeks to establish a strong pro-peace, pro-Israeli voice that is not afraid to depart from the line of the Israeli government.
The groups are expressing a position that they, too, appreciate and support Israel and believe in its right to defend itself, just like their counterparts in the traditional, more powerful, so-called pro-Israel groups.
But Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, says that the issue does not lie in a right to self-defense a given but whether an operation like the attacks on Gaza will even work.
"While air strikes by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks," according to Ben-Ami, "we believe that real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability."
J Street echoed its director’s statement with a press release declaring that the recent massive escalation was "pushing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict further down a path of never-ending violence."
Therein lays the crux of these groups’ assertions. While many of the other Jewish groups have been at best lukewarm on the peace process and the two-state solution, the peace groups see them as essential to the continued existence of the Jewish state.
By encouraging steps that they see as contributing to peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians, they contend they are helping Israel in the long run.
Levy said that the groups are essentially saying "We love Israel too, but it doesn’t do us or Israel any good to be the mouthpiece for the talking points of the Israeli foreign ministry."
Levy also pointed to the peace groups’ statements as an indication of a U.S. Jewish perspective, rather than a strictly Israeli one.
Indeed, the J Street release stated that reestablishing the cease-fire and making a concerted, international-led effort toward a sustainable resolution to the broader conflict "is a fundamental American interest."
"We too stand to suffer as the situation spirals, rage in the region is directed at the United States, and our regional allies are further undermined," said the statement, speaking from a U.S. perspective.
J Street is circulating a petition that has already garnered 14,000 signatures and which the group says it is already using to lobby President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team and congressional leaders.
The petition calls for "strong U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to urgently reinstate a meaningful cease-fire that ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel, and lifts the blockade of Gaza." Those actions, it says, are "in the best interests of Israel, the Palestinian people, and the United States."
The intense pressure from both sets of groups is very much aimed at the transition team, with Obama just three weeks away from being sworn into office, said an analysis of varying views in Jewish Week, a New York-based newspaper.
Obama and his transition team have been very cautious in their brief statements about the escalation, often repeating a talking point that there is only one president at a time.
But Obama campaigned on a renewed and vigorous attempt at Israeli-Arab peace, and he reiterated his commitment when announcing his foreign policy team last month.
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