The Israel Lobby War

The Obama administration gets pulled into a battle between liberal J Street and conservative AIPAC

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J Street, the liberal Israel lobby group, holds its first annual national conference on Sunday, an event that is thrusting the lobby's war with entrenched Israel interests into the national spotlight. Formed as a moderating counterbalance to the conservative AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), J Street is hated by Israel's hawkish supporters and is a controversial player in the already-radioactive debate over American-Israeli relations. It's a fight that rivals this summer's health care town halls in heat and vitriol.

Thus the fact that National Security Adviser James Jones is set to keynote the event is sending shockwaves through the insular Israel lobby world, as many interpret his appearance as an implicit White House endorsement of J Street. Yet at the same time, support among beltway figures is deteriorating: Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, has declined to attend. Both of New York's Senators have also dropped off the attendee list. As Washington political figures take sides--or refuse to take sides--in the Israel lobby war, what's at stake?

  • U.S. Israel Policy Could Be Decided By Lobby Fight Stephen Walt, co-author of a book on the Israel lobby, told Mother Jones's Robert Dreyfuss that this fight could determine Israel policy. "It will be important whether he gets enough cover from J Street and the Israel Policy Forum so Obama can say, 'AIPAC is not representative of the American Jewish community.' But I must say, I'm not wildly optimistic about this. I don't know if Obama is really ready to buck them," he said. Dreyfuss explained, "What's at stake today is what many observers believe is the last best hope for a peace accord, one that will require Israel to remove hundreds of thousands of settlers, withdraw from the West Bank, and accept at least some Palestinian authority in now occupied East Jerusalem."
  • J Street's 'Peace' At What Cost For Jews? The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb questions the "moderate" nature of J Street and its supporters, such as Helena Cobban. Cobban, using extreme language but making a point common among Jewish liberals, suggested that the Israeli walls around Palestinian neighborhoods were evocative of those around concentration camps. "But Cobban doesn't just compare Israel to Nazi Germany -- she likes to compare Israel to Hamas as well," writes Goldfarb, one of many conservatives who are offended by J Street's pushing against Israel on behalf of Palestinians. "Is it not obvious that Cobban prefers Hamas to Israel? And by the way, Cobban is 'agnostic' on a two-state solution -- a one-state solution, i.e. the end of Israel as a Jewish Democracy, would be fine with her, too."
  • Peace 'Is In Everyone's Interest' Spencer Ackerman slams AIPAC and former AIPAC official Lenny Ben-David, who attacked J Street's inclusion of Arab donors as proof that it does not represent Jews. "What he is trying to do is simple: scare Jews into tribal and atavistic fear against an organization that says, proudly, peace for Israel, the Palestinians and the region is in everyone's interest," Ackerman writes. "We Jews in this country frequently demand that our Arab-American fellow citizens denounce the radical and racist fringe in their midst. Yet they show more fortitude in doing so than we do when we're faced with a Lenny Ben-David, someone who once worked for the premiere Israel-U.S. lobby group and even for the Israeli embassy." Ackerman, ever the tough guy, concludes, "Lenny Ben-David, you and I will meet someday, face to face. I hope it comes very soon. I promise you it will be an unforgettable experience."
  • J Street Represents American Jews, Not Israelis New York Post conservative columnist Gabriel Schoenfeld argues that J Street works against Israel. "J-Street calls itself 'pro-Israel,' but on one issue after the next -- from the administration's call for a total freeze on 'natural growth' in settlements to its advocacy of direct Israeli talks with Hamas -- it embraces positions overwhelmingly rejected by the Israeli public," he writes. "It is difficult to see how the term 'pro-Israel' applies. A better term might be 'pro-squeezing Israel.' J-Street favors a US policy that would force Israel to take steps long favored by the American and Israeli left that Israel's democratically elected government has considered time and again and deemed severely wanting."
  • Why Can't Arabs Get Involved? Foreign Policy's Rebecca Abou-Chedid is tired of hearing that Israel lobby groups shouldn't accept her support because she's Arab. "With J Street's inaugural conference less than one week away, opponents are desperate that it fail. The attacks on the organization, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, its staff, and their supporters have taken on an all too-familiar form -- eschewing substance to malign the motives and associations of those they disagree with," she writes. "Those Arab Americans who support J Street, like myself, do so because we are eager to work with an organization that views us as partners and does not seek to perpetuate the divisions and pathologies of the Middle East here in the United States. ... Those of us who work in coalition to support President Obama's efforts are not the ones with explaining to do."
  • J Street Not That Important The New Republic's Marty Peretz, a committed Zionist, thinks J Street's support in Congress is overblow. "I'd be flabbergasted if more than two handfuls will show up, even counting two of the three Arab members of the House and the most ideologically left from the Black Caucus," he writes. "Of course, the great hope of the J Streeters is James Jones, who is to give the main oration. If he satisfies J Street, which I hardly believe he can given the existential similarities between administration policy and realistic Zionists, Obama and company will be in deep trouble, especially coming on the heels of all his palpable foreign policy failures experienced in recent weeks."
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