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J Street Looks for the Middle Road

The new Israel lobby group made a spectacular entrance, but it now must walk a political tightrope to build its credibility.

Courtesy of Gideon Lichfield
Courtesy of Gideon Lichfield

Pack 1,500 people into a room meant for 1,000, observed one cynic, and you're bound to create a buzz. Yet the excitement at J Street's first annual conference last week in Washingon had to do with more than overcrowding. It was the hum of an awakening, as a motley assemblage of leftish American Jewish organizations -- from progressive synagogues and peace campaigners to student groups and social activists -- looked around at each other and realized that, for the first time, they had a common political voice.

That voice says it is possible to be "pro-Israel and pro-peace," or even, as one of J Street's founders put it, "pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian." Set up to challenge the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Jewish-American lobbying group on Capitol Hill, J Street argues that it is in America's and Israel's own best interests for the United States to be more hands-on in trying to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It promotes "honest discussion of American and Israeli policies" (code for "it's OK to criticize Israel sometimes.") And it offers to connect members of Congress with Jewish donors who share its views, so they can deviate from the AIPAC line without losing funding.

For an organization just 18 months old, it is indisputably doing well. Besides being oversubscribed, the conference had a respectable number of legislators at the gala dinner; it got a hearty welcome from President Barack Obama's administration in the form of James L. Jones, the national security advisor; and it gave birth to an activist community. The panels crackled with debate and the coffee breaks seethed with discussions of new projects. Students demanded to know how to set up J Street chapters on their campuses. Israelis who had made the trip over, enervated by years of conflict and the slow implosion of their own country's peace camp, were electrified.

Pack 1,500 people into a room meant for 1,000, observed one cynic, and you’re bound to create a buzz. Yet the excitement at J Street’s first annual conference last week in Washingon had to do with more than overcrowding. It was the hum of an awakening, as a motley assemblage of leftish American Jewish organizations — from progressive synagogues and peace campaigners to student groups and social activists — looked around at each other and realized that, for the first time, they had a common political voice.

That voice says it is possible to be "pro-Israel and pro-peace," or even, as one of J Street’s founders put it, "pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian." Set up to challenge the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Jewish-American lobbying group on Capitol Hill, J Street argues that it is in America’s and Israel’s own best interests for the United States to be more hands-on in trying to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It promotes "honest discussion of American and Israeli policies" (code for "it’s OK to criticize Israel sometimes.") And it offers to connect members of Congress with Jewish donors who share its views, so they can deviate from the AIPAC line without losing funding.

For an organization just 18 months old, it is indisputably doing well. Besides being oversubscribed, the conference had a respectable number of legislators at the gala dinner; it got a hearty welcome from President Barack Obama’s administration in the form of James L. Jones, the national security advisor; and it gave birth to an activist community. The panels crackled with debate and the coffee breaks seethed with discussions of new projects. Students demanded to know how to set up J Street chapters on their campuses. Israelis who had made the trip over, enervated by years of conflict and the slow implosion of their own country’s peace camp, were electrified.

But in many ways, that was the easy part. Now J Street must navigate a delicate political course. Inevitably, it has come under attack from the right. It exposed itself to this by choosing, at least initially, to be a broad church. Although the lobby’s official line cleaves rigidly to the two-state solution, people at the conference ranged from traditional Zionists to "one-staters" (some of them peeved at not having been invited to speak). That makes for a vibrant grass-roots movement, but inevitably, the more fringe views are often the loudest. And it is easy for rightists to find someone currently or previously associated with J street whom they don’t like — such as George Soros, or even, horror of horrors, Arabs — and thus tar the entire organization as a pernicious anti-Israel scheme. On the left, meanwhile, J Street has been dismissed as "AIPAC lite." But if it tries to silence some of its more left-wing supporters in an attempt to court conservative Jewish opinion, it risks losing its base.

To call J Street "anti-Israel" is simply absurd. But a harder charge to shake off is that it doesn’t represent the Jewish mainstream. The lobby’s oft-repeated claim that it speaks for the silent majority, because most Jews in both America and Israel support a two-state solution, is slightly disingenuous. The difficulty is not with the solution, but how to get there. The split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, though it can be blamed as much on U.S. and Israeli meddling as on Palestinian infighting, has left the Palestinians without leaders who can do a deal on their behalf, much less carry it through. AIPAC doesn’t oppose a two-state deal; it just doesn’t trust the Palestinians to implement one. A lot of Israelis would agree.

So the question is how much J Street’s alignment with Israeli thinking matters. One view is that credibility in Washington must be won first in Jerusalem and that J Street will therefore have to work hard at its conservative profile. "AIPAC is the Likud in America," said one Israeli at the conference. "J Street needs to be Kadima," Israel’s most centrist party, which espouses a two-state deal. (Kadima won the most seats in the last election, though it was the Likud that managed to form a right-wing coalition.) But while J Street won endorsements from Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, as well as the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, the names on a letter of support from Israeli dignitaries suggested that most of its friends there are from Labor or Meretz, the declining parties of the Israeli peace camp.

The alternative view is that because Israel is moving away from it but Washington is moving toward it, J Street needs to focus its efforts on the latter. Although much smaller and less-well-funded than AIPAC, J Street can clearly make Washington sit up and take notice. It can work on developing its student and community activism and win over legislators one by one. It may not represent most Israelis, but it does echo many American Jews’ growing discomfort with recent events in Israel such as the assault on Gaza earlier this year and the ascent of Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme nationalist, to the post of foreign minister — issues on which mainstream American Jewish groups have stayed pointedly silent. And the Obama administration is evidently sympathetic to its views.

But that also means that J Street’s success will depend a lot on what the Obama administration wants to do. Right now, that is pretty unclear. Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group and a member of J Street’s advisory council, says that he thinks the president’s statements on Israel-Palestine "have created an instinct, but what they haven’t created is a policy. So the policy has been too vulnerable to events." A good recent example was when, after months of insisting that Israel stop all settlement-building in the West Bank, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to cave in when she praised the limited restraint that Israel had shown. She quickly backtracked, but the damage was done; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose political life in Palestine already hangs by a thread (he said yesterday that he will not seek re-election), is refusing to move ahead on peace talks without a total freeze, and the United States’ credibility as an honest broker has been sorely sapped.

That, ultimately, highlights the weakness of any lobbying group. U.S. foreign policy, when it exists at all, is made in the executive branch. Congress is more of a gatekeeper. If the Obama administration knows what it wants to do in the Middle East, it might find in J Street a useful tool for getting it through Congress. If it dithers, neither J Street nor AIPAC will have much influence.

Gideon Lichfield is deputy editor of The Economist online and was previously its Jerusalem correspondent.

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