Is the End Near for the Right-Wing's Vice Grip on U.S. Israeli Policy?
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This week, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Jones, Barack Obama's national security adviser, will keynote the inaugural J Street Conference, billed as a gathering of "progressive pro-Israel, pro-peace" activists.
The event marks the emergence of the moderate Jewish advocacy group that aspires to be a counterweight to the voices of the traditionally hawkish "pro-Israel" lobby in Washington.
The White House's decision last week to send Jones to address the event was a small move that might have a significant impact on the overheated politics of the Middle East.
In the months before, a full-throated "swift boat" campaign had been launched against J Street in an attempt to vilify and delegitimize the group as belonging to the fringe, despite its advocacy of a moderate, or at most slightly left-of center, approach to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The conservative media offered a steady drumbeat of dubious charges, and a campaign had been under way to warn members of Congress away from the event. And it appeared to be having some impact as several members of Congress pulled out of the conference in the weeks leading up to the event (a total of 10 reportedly dropped out, according to reports, but not all in response to outside pressure).
It was an attempt to nip J Street in the bud and preserve the hegemony established lobbying groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee have long enjoyed in the halls of Congress.
At stake was not only the definition of what it means to be "pro-Israel" -- long synonymous with supporting the more hawkish end of Israel's political spectrum (despite American Jews' general tendency to lean left) -- but also, and more importantly, the ability of established lobbying groups to claim to speak for the American Jewish community as a whole.
It was a closely watched Washington fight, and when the White House announced that the head of Obama's National Security Council would headline the event, it sent a powerful message, legitimizing the 2-year-old group as a voice in U.S. foreign policy debates and providing cover for wavering lawmakers under pressure to skip the conference.
It signaled, to the media and other interested observers, that the J Street conference is decidedly within the mainstream.
It was also another small shot at the hawkish Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- a public rebuke of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren's high-profile decision to boycott the conference a week earlier -- a decision that may have been prompted by pressure from AIPAC (Israel said it had concerns for some of the group's positions but would send an "observer").
Indeed, the Washington Post framed the entire controversy surrounding the conference as a proxy war in a larger conflict between the White House and the Israeli government under right-wing Netanyahu.
In sending Jones, not only did the Obama administration help J Street take the old-school "Israel lobby's" best punches and come through standing on its feet, it did itself a service in the process.
Obama has long been dogged by warnings that he risks losing support among American Jews for a range of policies -- from attempts to reach out to the Islamic world, to negotiating with Iran and, perhaps most significantly, for confronting the Israeli government on the expansion of Israeli settlements.
His administration is leaning on a new generation of moderate-to-progressive Jewish activists, represented most visibly at the moment by J Street, to provide political cover for him in turn.
What Does It Mean To Be Pro-Israel?
The spate of attacks hurled at J Street were intended to paint the group as "anti-Israel," outside the mainstream and unrepresentative of the views of the Jewish community. As such, its critics claim, J Street has no right to a seat at the table on the "pro-Israel" side of any discussion of U.S. policy.