Is the End Near for the Right-Wing's Vice Grip on U.S. Israeli Policy?
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.
But a series of polls of American Jews commissioned by the group suggest the opposite is true, that J Street's moderate view of the Israel-Palestine conflict better reflects the views of most American Jews than those of more hawkish "pro-Israel" groups.
According to the study [doc.] conducted in March, while "support for Israel is strong and stable among American Jews," they tend to take "very sophisticated and nuanced positions when it comes to American policy toward the Middle East" -- positions that are anything but the Israel-right-or-wrong narrative advanced by the established right-leaning groups of the "Israel lobby."
For example, almost 9 of 10 American Jews surveyed said the administration should put pressure on both sides to achieve a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. And while it's official Israeli (and U.S.) policy not to negotiate with any Palestinian entity that includes members of Hamas, 7 out of 10 American Jews would be in favor of Israel cutting a deal with a unity government that included the organization.
Six of 10 oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements, "56 percent believe that military action that kills Palestinian civilians -- even if it targets terrorists -- actually creates more terrorism instead of preventing terrorism," and while a majority supported Israel's "right" to launch last year's attack on the Gaza Strip, 60 percent of respondents said the campaign had either done nothing to enhance Israel's security or had in fact made the country less safe.
The great danger J Street represents to the long-established groups of the "Israel lobby" is that it has the potential to shift the terms of the debate in Washington -- redefining the boundaries of "mainstream" discourse on the Middle East conflict.
"A more open discourse would reveal how the policies advocated by the traditional lobbying groups have damaged U.S. Interests and unintentionally harmed Israel as well," Harvard's Steven Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, said in an email-exchange. "And that is not something that AIPAC and the other hard-line groups want to have exposed."
The reaction to J Street's emergence on the scene has been fierce. In an e-mail to supporters, J Street Campaign Director Isaac Luria wrote: "The Weekly Standard magazine -- dubbed the "neocon bible" by the Economist -- launched an attack on our conference and the whole pro-Israel, pro-peace movement."
Weekly Standard Editor Michael Goldfarb -- a man who has suggested that killing innocent women and children is an effective tool in the "war on terror" -- launched a campaign urging readers to call members of Congress and, in Luria's words, "frighten them away from associating with J Street."
Commentary's Noah Pollack called J Street an "anti-Israel group" that is "simply contemptible," James Kirchick of the New Republic, in the midst of an ongoing public crusade against the group, sneered that "far from representing the 'silent majority' of American Jews," J Street is "run by politically marginal amateurs." And a slick-looking Web site, JStreet Jive.com, popped up to "track Israel's Jewish defamers."
Luria calls the attacks "classic swiftboating," and on examination, the charges against J Street appear to fit that description. One of J Street's most vocal critics has been Lenny Ben-David -- whom MJ Rosenberg, an Israel policy analyst and former congressional aide, described as "the quarterback of the smear campaign against J Street."
Rosenberg, who has firsthand knowledge of Ben-David's political tactics, called him "a feckless character, if there ever was one":
I knew him during his AIPAC days (he worked there for 25 years before being handed his gold watch and shown the door). At AIPAC, Lenny was in charge of the AIPAC version of oppo research. Lenny compiled files on everyone who criticized Israeli policies in any way and used the material he gathered to destroy careers. Lenny loved his files. He loved sending college kids out to gather negative information about journalists, politicians, rabbis, whatever. … Lenny now lives in Israel in the Efrat settlement. He's been on the payroll of the governments of Turkey, Georgia, oil companies, whoever will pay. He also was a Netanyahu aide. He remains close to AIPAC and to Netanyahu…
Ben-David is organizing a phone and e-mail campaign around an "open letter" to J Street's leaders published by the conservative Pajamas Media. It's a classic of its genre, painting the group as marginal with a thin soup of guilt-by-association.
Daniel Levy, a co-founder of J Street and now an adviser to the group, works at the (decidedly centrist) New America Foundation, which gets some funding from George Soros. That, according to Ben-David, ties J Street to a favorite right-wing bogeyman.
Another charge: J Street's director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, used to work for Fenton Communications, a PR firm that (after his departure) committed the crime of running "an international public-opinion awareness campaign that advocates for the accountability of those who participated in attacks against schools in Gaza."
At worst, Ben-David's indictment of the group veers from plain vanilla McCarthyism to a much uglier Islamophobia. He argues that the fact that some of the organization's supporters are members of the Muslim community is alone enough to discredit it.
Ben-David paints a sinister picture, for example, of "the case of Rebecca Abou-Chedid," who made a donation to J Street. Ben-David accuses Abou-Chedid not only of the crime of having previously served as political director at the Arab American Institute but also currently being director of outreach at the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force.
Journalist Spencer Ackerman responded to the smear with a personal view:
You will notice that nowhere in Lenny Ben-David's post is there any accusation that Rebecca has taken any sort of objectionable stand or made any sort of objectionable point. And that's because it is impossible to do so.
I would wager that every journalist in Washington who writes on Middle East peace issues has had some interaction with Rebecca, as has every Hill staffer and innumerable current and former administration officials. Every single one of us will attest that Rebecca is incapable of ill will toward the Jewish people or toward Israel. Her entire professional life is devoted to peace, reconciliation and two states. I have repeatedly marveled at how good-natured she can be.
In a sense, the heat of the attacks on the young organization reveal what's at stake: the ability of what Rosenberg calls "the status-quo lobby" to portray itself as the only "pro-Israel" perspective in Washington. Steven Walt said, "because their own case is so weak, the hard-liners have little choice but to smear" those who advocate a more moderate approach.
Shifting Window of Acceptable Discourse
While J Street has plenty of progressive allies, it has established itself in Washington by being almost self-consciously centrist. When asked by the Atlantic Monthly's Jeffrey Goldberg where he sees the group in relation to America's Jewish community, Ben-Ami said: "I believe that we are at the center. The Marty Peretzes and the Michael Goldfarbs and the Lenny Ben-Davids are on the right, to the far right, and there are people to our left, and we are in the middle trying to put forward a thoughtful, moderate, mainstream point of view about how to save Israel as a Jewish home."
That kind of "triangulation" -- in Goldberg's words -- represents a trade-off: J Street will disappoint those who expected it to be a vocally progressive counterweight to the right-leaning advocacy groups. For better or worse -- and that's certainly the subject of some debate among various activists -- J Street's leaders clearly believe that mainstream credibility is crucial for the group's success.
So when the Goldstone Commission released a blistering report that found widespread violations of the rule of law during Israel's invasion of Gaza last year, J Street didn't join the hawkish voices accusing Goldstone of acting out of anti-Semitism or hatred of Israel (he's a Jewish Zionist who "loves Israel"), singling out Israel while ignoring other countries' crimes (he was the chief prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia) or ignoring the Palestinians' human rights' violations (his report found crimes on both sides).
But J Street did reject the report's core recommendations and took a jab at the oft-maligned U.N. Human Rights Council, even as it urged Israel to "establish an independent state commission of inquiry" into the Goldstone Commission's findings (something Tel Aviv has refused to do).
And while J Street endorses sanctions against Iran -- what it calls a "thoughtful and nuanced approach" -- its position is less than black-and-white; it has opposed sanctions bills before Congress in the past. According to a statement, the group's "first choice" is to resolve the tensions between the U.S and Iran "through diplomatic means."
The great potential of J Street is not that it might radically shift U.S. policy in the Middle East, but rather that its existence has the potential to shift the "Overton window," a term coined by Joe Overton at the Merrimac Center for Public Policy to describe the range of approaches to an issue that the public finds acceptable to consider -- which proposals appear to be "fringe" and which fall within the mainstream.
J Street offers cover to those who would deviate from the hawkish orthodoxy established by the "status-quo lobby" -- one can oppose a sanctions bill that's too deep or accept the legitimacy of a human-rights report that finds Israel at fault without being reviled for being "anti-Israel."
That alone might prove a crucial first step toward a more balanced view of the Middle East conflict to emerge within the U.S. foreign policy establishment.