Obama Won't Have to Kiss AIPAC's Ring -- Progressive Alternative to Hawkish Mideast Policies Emerges
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Of course, Palestinians don't vote in U.S. elections. But Jews do, and in November they voted for Obama more than 4-to-1, despite his selective and belated declaration of allegiance to the established AIPAC orthodoxy. That Obama's success with Jews surprised so many people testifies to the extent right-wing American Jewish groups have succeeded in equating hard-line, "Israel right or wrong" politics with support for the Jewish state. But as the election results and post-Gaza opinion polls of U.S. opinion have shown, those days are over and receding quickly from view. This fact may very well widen the political space for Obama to chart a brave new course in the region.
As explained most eloquently by Bernard Avishai in an October essay for Harper's, " Obama's Jews" are a different breed from the hard-line Likudniks that have traditionally claimed to represent the American Jewish community. "Obama's campaign exposed the fault lines among Jews, which are serious, while implicitly challenging the great silent majority to repudiate ... neoconservative celebrities like William Kristol ... whose militant simplicities purport to represent them -- and don't," wrote Avishai, noting that 70 percent of American Jews support exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. "Obama's campaign is an implicit opportunity for a new leadership to emerge, a contemporary equivalent of Rabbi Heschel locking arms with Dr. King."
That new leadership is guardedly confident that Obama will call for a cease-fire upon taking office and begin the tortuous work of reviving the peace process. Just as important, they are hopeful they will have a voice in the debate over the evolution of U.S. policy. Last month, senior Obama transition officials met with an unprecedented array of American Jewish organizations, including pro-peace outfits that have been completely shut out during the last eight years. Present were groups at the core of what might be called "The Lobby 2.0." This new wave of beltway Jewish activism is challenging the traditional dominance of AIPAC and the ADL on everything from a Gaza ceasefire to West Bank settlers to diplomacy with Iran.
The best known of these groups is the newly minted J Street, which since its founding in early 2008 has grown to threaten AIPAC as the most influential voice of American pro-Israel Jewry. In the last cycle, J Street's political action committee raised more money for liberal, pro-peace candidates -- nearly $600,000 -- than any of the more established PACs in the hard-line AIPAC constellation. Although J Street has no direct links to the incoming administration, organizers say they intend to have impact through their web of connections in the Capitol, extensive media outreach and an organizing e-mail list of 100,000 supporters and growing.
"Our influence will be significant because the agenda we back -- a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and diplomacy to resolve conflicts in the Middle East -- has such overwhelming support in the American Jewish community," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director. "The voices that have been the loudest in recent years when it comes to Israel and the Middle East are far to the right of the community. If the agenda does start to shift, groups like ours can anticipate far sharper attacks from the right."
Other pro-Israel, pro-peace groups share this sense of a new day dawning on Jan. 20. "Based on the statements of candidate Obama and on what we have been hearing from staffers of President-elect Obama, we have good reason to believe that the incoming administration will be more receptive to our message," says Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans For Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Israelis For Peace Now.