Is J Street Winning?

This election showed that the Democratic Party's views toward Israel are changing in some disturbing ways.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Will there be a tectonic shift in attitudes toward the Middle East among Democrats in the next Congress?

Gone will be many Democratic heavyweights who could be counted as loyal supporters of the pro-Israel cause. Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was defeated by Brad Sherman in an intraparty race; Shelley Berkley resigned from the House to pursue a failed Senate campaign; Rep. Steve Rothman was defeated by Rep. Bill Pascrell in the Democratic primary; Sen. Joe Lieberman declined to run again; Gary Ackerman, ranking Democrat on the House Mideast subcommittee, retired rather than face a bitter primary fight; and Rep. Barney Frank retired. Entering Congress, meanwhile, is a new class of Democrats with weaker ties to Israel, such as Tammy Baldwin (previously a member of the House), Ann McLane Kuster, and Tammy Duckworth.

J Street, an organization highly critical of Israeli policies, is hailing the election results as "an incredible victory" and "part of transforming the political atmosphere around Israel in the U.S." The 113th Congress, according to J Street’s statistics, will include 50 percent more members endorsed by JStreetPAC, its political action committee (PAC), than the 112th. All 49 JStreetPAC-endorsed incumbents in the House and seven JStreetPAC-endorsed Senate candidates were reelected, while its challengers and candidates for open seats won 14 out of 15 races. J Street is also boasting that it helped defeat five hard-line pro-Israel Republican House members: Joe Walsh, Allen West, Bobby Schilling, Frank Guinta, and Ann Marie Buerkle.

However, J Street’s political victory is not nearly so sweeping as it would have observers believe. Almost all the Democratic candidates the group supported were also supported by AIPAC-inspired PACs and individuals affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. According to AIPAC insiders, the AIPAC-inspired donations to these Democrats in most cases dwarfed the $1.8 million raised by JStreetPAC. (Unlike J Street, AIPAC does not have a directly affiliated PAC and does not publish numbers for PACs known to be friendly toward the organization.) AIPAC staff and volunteers have long been engaged with the same Democratic incumbents and challengers, and it has secured pro-Israel position papers from them. AIPAC will also be far more influential than J Street in influencing coming committee and leadership assignments that go to select Democrats.

But it is true that more funds are being raised today than ever before from donors who depict Israel as the obstacle to peace and favor U.S. pressure to force Israeli concessions. The campaign contributions put muscle behind a flood of articles and speeches that portray Israel as a strategic liability rather than an asset — a trigger-happy country that exaggerates the Iranian threat and is plotting the annexation of the West Bank at the expense of the Palestinians.

Spokesmen for this view, like author Peter Beinart and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, are taking ideas from the far left of the Israeli political spectrum and transforming them into mainstream beliefs of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, however, their counterparts in Israel have shrunk to insignificance: Meretz, the party of Peace Now and Yossi Beilin, has contracted from 14 seats in the Knesset to a mere three. Shelly Yachimovich, the new head of the Labor Party and informal leader of the Israeli opposition, has resisted fierce pressure to embrace the Beilinist agenda. The vast majority of the Israeli public has spoken, and it has rejected the ideology these critics are bringing to the United States.

But in America, these voices have found fertile ground. The American Jewish community is on average more liberal and more dovish on the Middle East than the Jewish majority in Israel. Reform temples and college campuses are particularly receptive to Beinart and Ben-Ami’s message.

As a result, these ideas are moving gradually from the far left to the center-left of the Democratic base. And as the older generation of Democratic stalwarts gradually passes from the scene and new Democrats to the left of their predecessors enter the House and Senate and slowly climb the ranks, there will be an evolution within the Democratic Party.

Trends on the Republican side generally go in the opposite direction. Twenty years ago, the party was split between the "Reagan Republicans," who were ardently pro-Israel, and old liners like Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and the nativist Pat Buchanan, who had a far more skeptical attitude. Today, the movement conservatives are in almost complete control, and stalwart support for Israel is the norm among Republicans.

That fact, however, will only come as slight consolation to AIPAC and successive Israeli governments, which have struggled for decades to prevent support for the Jewish state from becoming a partisan issue. So far they have succeeded: In fact, AIPAC is still producing record-breaking bipartisan majorities on pro-Israel legislation, with more Democrats than ever in support.

But there is no guarantee this state of affairs will continue forever, and we could be witnessing the first rumblings of a gradual shift today. A change is taking place under the surface inside the Democratic Party, and it is bound to burst out into the open at key moments down the road.

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