Friday, 15 February 2013

The New Israel Lobby

Following election night 2012, most political news stories about American-Israel relations focused on the seeming failure of Sheldon Adelson to use massive political donations to change Jewish voting patterns. Meanwhile, a very different voice for the Jewish community was celebrating an incredible success story. J Street, a progressive Jewish organization focused on pushing for U.S. involvement in a two-state solution, proudly announced that 70 of its 72 candidates had won their races this year, including several closely fought ones. The relatively young but fast-growing group is going where no advocacy group has gone before: challenging the conventional wisdom of U.S. politics and Israel.

Pro-Israel Hegemony: AIPAC and the Israel Lobby

The so-called Israel lobby has an almost mythic status. A survey of Capitol Hill aides places it as the second most powerful lobbying group, topped only by the enormously influential AARP. Support for Israel, although commonly disputed, is an assumed prerequisite for any successful Presidential campaign and almost any Congressional candidacy. No President since Eisenhower has actively expressed much but admiration for the country and its relationship with the United States.

How support for the Jewish state became a reflexive position for American politicians is hotly contested though. Stephen Walt, Harvard Professor and author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy told the HPR that it is attributed to the success of “a loose coalition that works actively and openly to strengthen the so-called special relationship and maintain unconditional support for Israel,” a group he deems the Israel Lobby. The centerpiece of what Walt describes as a large and highly effective, although not centrally coordinated, political group is AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which organizes annual conferences and engages in aggressive lobbying in support of a close U.S.-Israel relationship.
Most of its supporters insist that AIPAC does not represent a particular ideology. Alan Dershowitz, an active supporter of the organization and author of The Case for Israel, argues AIPAC “makes the 80 percent case for Israel,” focusing on issues on which most pro-Israel Americans agree.

Others, however, see AIPAC as drifting to the right and away from support of a two-state solution. Walt sees three reasons for this. The first is that AIPAC has traditionally supported positions mirroring the national Israeli government, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party has recently dominated Israeli domestic politics. The second, a theme echoed by dissatisfied Jewish-Americans in other interviews with the HPR, is that political influence within AIPAC has flowed to more right-wing factions because they have donated more actively. The result, progressive organizations assert, is an American political conversation dominated by those who support a belligerent foreign policy and oppose a two-state solution to the conflict.

Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace J-Street and a Jewish Left

A Second Voice for Pro-Israel

The most notable response to AIPAC’s supposed rightward shift has been the rise of an organized and independent pro-Israel left. Commonly referring to themselves as pro-Israel, pro-peace groups, these organizations focus on supporting U.S. advocacy in the Middle East both for Israel’s existence and an eventual agreement on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most notable of these groups, both in terms of media focus and fundraising prowess, is the young but growing J Street.
Founded four years ago, J Street proclaims itself “the home for pro-Israel, pro-Peace Americans.” Representatives from the organization argue that they are not staking out a new position but are rather representing the American Jewish community mainstream. “If you look at where we are in terms of the Jewish community, we’re already representing the majority,” J Street Government Affairs Director Dylan Williams told the HPR. Pointing to polling indicating that the vast majority of American Jews support a two-state solution, J Street staff argued that they are quickly growing and changing the politics of U.S.-Israel relations.

Building to Compete

In just four years, J-Street has built an impressive political operation, complete with a lobbying presence, grassroots, and fundraising PAC, an almost entirely unique organization. Williams explains that, “previous groups worked almost exclusively on the grassroots… having popular support is not enough… you have to show people there’s nothing to fear from making the right decision.”

Williams argues that eliminating this fear involves providing financial support to candidates. The fundraising PAC, which J Street claims is the largest pro-Israel PAC, distributed more than $1.5 million to candidates for the last two election cycles. However, although nominally nonpartisan, the organization only endorsed Democrats this cycle. The goal, according to Director of Political Affairs Dan Kalik, is to undermine the “false narrative that people who don’t follow hawkish positions will lose… financial support from the Jewish community.” If Kalik is correct, then J Street’s growth should encourage more politicians to publicly support the two-state solution.

When asked about their ability to match AIPAC’s scope however, J Street is quick to highlight their relative youth, and Kalik says, “We’re still a pretty new organization.” Still, Williams argues J Street does not need to rival AIPAC in size. “We have assets they don’t have,” Williams asserts, “like the majority of the community,” and by simply offering an alternative voice to politicians J Street has begun to shatter ceilings. Williams continues, “Some [Congressmen] had always assumed Jewish donors were right-wing on Israel,” and are shocked to find out that many donors were supportive for reasons unrelated to Israel.

Critics Fire Back

J Street’s rise, however, has not come without significant criticism, even from liberal advocates. Dershowitz, a longtime Democrat, says that the organization is “misleading the public by calling itself pro-Israel.” Dershowitz, like many supporters of AIPAC and other traditional pro-Israel organizations, is angered by J-Street’s aggressive attitude in opposing certain pro-Israel factions.

Dershowitz also echoes common concerns that J Street has gone too far in opposing aggressive policies towards Iran, saying, “they’ve undercut [the Obama administration’s position] on Iran,” and undercut Israel’s security.  J Street counters, “Alan Dershowitz seems to be championing loose talk of war,” something they quickly underscore President Obama has explicitly opposed.

Dershowitz’s criticisms occasionally trend toward the personal, revealing both long-standing connections being challenged by J Street’s rise and the sense of betrayal among supporters of other organizations. Dershowitz states that he offered to build a left-wing, pro-Israel organization under AIPAC with J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Amin, but alleges “[Ben-Amin] wanted to build his own organization.”

This tone underscores the tense and frequently aggressive tone of leaders in the pro-Israel movement. AIPAC and its allies remain the clear frontrunner in terms of organization and power, but the defensiveness among Dershowitz and others suggests that the impressive growth of J Street’s political and fundraising operations is game changing. The ultimate policy direction is unclear, but we have entered a ferocious battle that will determine what ‘pro-Israel’ means, and this could change a longstanding cornerstone of American politics.

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