A new group of prominent U.S. Jews who believe
that the so-called "Israel Lobby" has been dominated for too long
by neoconservatives and other Likud-oriented hawks has launched a new organization
to help fund political candidates who favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and a stronger U.S. role in achieving it.
Almost two years in the making, the J Street
project plans to spend some $1.5 million about half of which has been
pledged to date in its first year of operation, a portion of which will
go to supporting half a dozen congressional campaigns for candidates who share
its pro-peace and pro-Israel views.
"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
and its political-action affiliate, JStreetPac.
"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 Tuesday.
"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," he added.
The new project has been endorsed by some two dozen prominent Israelis, including
three former directors of Israel's foreign ministry, a former chief of the
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff, a former commander of the Israeli
air force, and several other top former top military and intelligence officers.
"Now more than ever, true friendship requires strong American leadership
and engagement to move the sides toward a comprehensive two-state solution,"
the Israeli leaders wrote in a letter to J Street's founders. "With time
running out, business-as-usual will not do."
The launch of the new group, which will be led by an advisory council of 100
prominent U.S. Jewish leaders and philanthropists, is aimed primarily at challenging
the long-standing dominance of several major Jewish lobby organizations, particularly
the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose leadership
has generally opposed substantial Israeli concessions in negotiations with
Palestinians and Israel's other Arab neighbors.
AIPAC, which is widely seen as Washington's most powerful foreign policy lobby,
has forged strong ties with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill
where it has long claimed to represent the foreign policy views of the vast
majority of U.S. Jews.
Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, they provide
up to 40 percent of total campaign contributions for Democratic candidates
and up to 20 percent for Republican candidates.
AIPAC has also cultivated alliances with prominent right-wing Christian Zionists,
such as John Hagee, the Texas televangelist who keynoted AIPAC's annual convention
last year. Among other positions, Hagee has repeatedly denounced any consideration
by the Israeli government to giving up parts of Jerusalem as part of any peace
settlement with the Palestinians. He has also urged President George W. Bush
to attack Iran.
Those alliances have created growing discomfort within the larger U.S. Jewish
community, which, in any event, tends to hold less hawkish views about Israel
and its relations with its neighbors than those urged by AIPAC and other more
right-wing national Jewish institutions, according to recent surveys of Jewish
opinion by the American Jewish Committee.
Indeed, earlier this month, Eric Yoffie, the president of the influential
Union of Reform Judaism, called on Jews to disassociate themselves from Hagee
and his organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Several days later,
seven past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, another major national group whose leadership has moved increasingly
to the right, defended Hagee as a "true friend of Israel" and CUFI
as "among the strongest supporters of Israel in the United States"
in a letter to the New York Times.
Founders of J Street, however, clearly question the notion that AIPAC, CUFI,
and other organizations that oppose substantial territorial or other concessions
by Israel as part of any peace process are indeed strong supporters of Israel,
particularly at a time when most experts say the chances for a two-state solution
that would preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are diminishing.
"For the sake of Israel, the United States, and the world, it is time
for American political discourse to re-engage with reality," wrote Ben-Ami,
whose grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv and whose father was
a militant in the right-wing Revisionist Movement, in a column published Tuesday
by the Jewish national daily The Forward.
"Voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and
to establish in American political discourse that Israel's core security interest
is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all
permanent, internationally recognized borders."
"We need to have a much more robust discussion in this country about
what it means to be pro-Israel," said Victor Kovner, a former Corporation
Counsel of New York City and a member of the group's advisory council.
"Many of us have been frustrated to say the least at the presumption
held by so many
that, because we are active in the Jewish community,
we are somehow supportive of AIPAC and those who have pursued right-wing agendas.
I don't support AIPAC; I support a different vision of the Middle East, and,
in creating J Street, I think we will make that position clear."
In its policy positions, J Street calls for territorial compromises with the
Palestinians based largely on the 1967 borders with reciprocal land swaps and
the division of Jerusalem. The group also favors strong U.S. support for Israeli-Syrian
peace negotiations and direct, high-level U.S. talks with Iran to address all
issues of mutual concern, including ending Iranian opposition to Arab-Israeli
peace efforts and its support for armed anti-Israel groups in Palestine and
"There is no way that Israel as a Sparta is going to be in the interests
of the Israeli or American people," noted Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador
to Israel who helped negotiate the 1978 Camp David Accords with Egypt under
the Jimmy Carter administration.
"The threats to Israel are real, but the way to go after those threats
is to bring about different kinds of dialogue and negotiation than we've seen
recently," said Lewis, who also serves on the J Street's advisory council.
While the group's goal of $1.5 million in the first year is a fraction of
AIPAC's $50 million annual budget, supporters stressed that this is just the
"Most Americans and most Jewish Americans support the two-state solution
and are tired of having a Likud-oriented lobby speaking in their name,"
said M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum. "Let's see
what happens, but I think this could be big."
(Inter Press Service)