As J Street Turns One, Signs of a Shift

It seems safe to say that the first year of existence for J Street, the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobbying organization, was more eventful than anticipated.

The group, which was founded one year ago today, quickly became a lightning rod for criticism from hardliners affiliated with right-wing groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — particularly after it took the lead in questioning the wisdom of Israel’s recent military offensive in Gaza.

But as a growing number of normally hawkish commentators have come forward to argue that the Gaza war was a mistake both morally and pragmatically, and as the Barack Obama administration appears set to clash with Israel’s far-right new Netanyahu-Lieberman government, many feel that J Street’s more critical stance toward Israeli policies has been vindicated by events.

As the organization heads into its second year, supporters are optimistic that J Street can break the stranglehold on U.S. Israel-Palestine policy traditionally exerted by AIPAC and other right-wing groups.

"I’ve been floored by the response we’ve gotten," says Isaac Luria, J Street’s campaigns director. "It feels like J Street needed to be here and that there’s a real constituency for what we’re up to."

Headed by Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, the group was founded last April to promote a two-state solution, diplomatic engagement between Israel and its neighbors, and "honest discussion" of U.S. and Israeli policies.

Through its associated political action committee (PAC), J Street has taken an active role in supporting congressional candidates, giving out more money in the 2007-8 election cycle than any other pro-Israel PAC, and on Wednesday it announced a new university outreach program to build support on campuses.

Predictably, the group quickly came under fire from neoconservatives at publications like the New Republic and Commentary, which have traditionally been aligned with AIPAC and with Israel’s Likud party.

But it was the group’s public statements about the Gaza war that attracted the most controversy. While staffers for many U.S. Jewish organizations privately expressed doubts about the morality and wisdom of the campaign, J Street was virtually alone in voicing these doubts publicly.

One statement soon after the offensive began, which argued that "neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong" and that "there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them", attracted particularly intense criticism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism with a reputation as a "moderate" voice, quickly published an op-ed in the Forward slamming J Street for being "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment, and also appallingly naïve."

Neoconservatives and other hardliners quickly seized on Yoffie’s criticisms to argue that J Street was beyond the pale of acceptable "dovish" Jewish opinion, and even supporters privately expressed frustration that the group’s position was imprudent, even if correct.

But if the Gaza war seemed in January to have marginalized J Street, events of the past three months have made the group’s position appear increasingly farsighted. A growing consensus in both Israel and the U.S. holds that the Gaza offensive failed to achieve any worthwhile military objective, and reports of war crimes published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz have spurred a furious debate over the morality of the campaign.

In the past few weeks, several prominent commentators with reputations as pro-Israel hawks, such as Dissent editor Michael Walzer and New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, have belatedly come forward to argue that the conduct of the Gaza war was not merely unwise but immoral.

Still, if J Street staffers feel vindicated, they are careful not to show it. The organization still treads gingerly when the topic of Gaza comes up, recognizing that the issue remains an emotionally loaded one.

"I think that events proved that the position we took at the start of the war was in fact correct," says J Street executive director Ben-Ami. "I wouldn’t call it vindication; one doesn’t look for positives in such a tragedy."

"We can only hope that recognizing this tragic mistake provides motivation going forward for people within the region and internationally to prevent this sort of thing from happening again."

J Street chose to stay out of some other battles, such as the fight over the appointment of Amb. Charles Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council.

Freeman’s criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories provoked a fierce lobbying campaign in the media and on Capitol Hill to bring down his appointment, and he finally withdrew in March after coming under fire from neoconservative pundits and pro-Israel hardliners in Congress.

Although AIPAC denied any role in the Freeman affair, it was subsequently revealed that the group had quietly furnished anti-Freeman material to lawmakers, and the campaign as a whole was spearheaded by Steven Rosen, a former top-ranking AIPAC staffer now facing trial for passing classified material to the Israeli government.

J Street, on the other hand, did not take a position on the Freeman affair, although it did release a statement cautioning that "[i]t cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly."

In any case, these days the apparent disconnect between the new U.S. and Israeli governments is the most pressing issue facing Israel-policy groups in Washington.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution and bellicose rhetoric on Iran, along with the accession of far-right anti-Arab politician Avigdor Lieberman to the post of foreign minister, suggest to many observers that the Israeli government is set to clash with the Obama administration, whose top Middle East envoy George Mitchell has a reputation for even-handedness.

Already this month, Lieberman created a stir in his first speech as foreign minister by announcing that Israel would not be bound by the 2007 Annapolis agreements, which prompted a swift rebuke from President Obama himself.

The Netanyahu-Lieberman government may also undermine support for Israeli policies in the U.S. Jewish community; according to a recent J Street poll, 69 percent of U.S. Jews opposed Lieberman’s campaign platform requiring Arab citizens of Israel to sign loyalty oaths.

Given the strong support among U.S. Jews for Obama and their skepticism about the new Israeli government, many feel that J Street is better positioned to represent U.S. Jewish public opinion going forward than groups that typically offer reflexive support for Israeli policies.

J Street has already produced a video highlighting Lieberman’s inflammatory statements and promoted an open letter calling on Jewish leaders to repudiate his policies.

U.S. public disapproval of the new Israeli government appears to have left Israel hardliners on the defensive. AIPAC, which in the past has enjoyed a close relationship with Netanyahu, has not released a statement on the new government, although it has sought to reassure U.S. Jews that Netanyahu will continue to participate in the peace process.

This is somewhat ironic since, according to former AIPAC chief lobbyist Douglas Bloomfield, AIPAC and Netanyahu teamed up in the early 1990s in an attempt to bring down the Oslo peace process behind the scenes.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.