Is the end near for the Right’s Grip on US-Israel policy


Is the End Near for the Right-Wing’s Vice Grip on U.S. Israeli Policy?

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on October 26, 2009, Printed on October 26, 2009

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 toreports, 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-profiledecision 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.

Withering Fire

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 Standardmagazine — 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, 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”:

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