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Reframing the Israel Debate

Beginning today, a band of liberal Jews intends to transform the terms of the American debate over Israel — among the most delicate, controversial and combustible topics in politics. And right on time for Passover, the Jewish holiday marking deliverance from bondage.

Two young, leading liberal Jews — the former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser Jeremy Ben-Ami and the former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy — plan to unveil the first-ever political action committee dedicated to promoting political candidates in the United States who support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Known as the J Street Project, the effort intends to raise millions of dollars even at this late date in the 2008 election cycle.

It has an even grander ambition: to reframe the terms of the debate over what it means for America to support Israel, and recast them in a progressive direction. Currently, support for Israel is often seen as backing Israeli militarism against its Arab adversaries; liberal Jews believe that the only lasting security for an Israeli democracy is through a negotiated peace. But “our side gets cowed into silence,” said Ben-Ami, a former policy director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “They’re afraid to say, ‘No, we are pro-Israel than you, our path is better.”

That side is, in Ben-Ami’s telling, the “substantial group” of American Jews who identify as liberal — and who identify with the Jewish state. Their contention is that after 40 years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, and the subsequent demographic threat to Jewish democracy posed by the population growth rate among Palestinians who live under Israeli control, the real threat to Israel is not the creation of a Palestinian state, but its absence.

According to this new group, the proper role for Washington is to broker actively the birth of an independent Palestine and settle the conflict — something it identifies as a first-order national interest for a U.S. in the war on terrorism. The Israeli occupation of Palestine, supported by the United States, is regularly cited as a catalytic driver of anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, exploited by jihadist demagogues for radicalization and terrorist recruitment.

An irony of the American-Israeli relationship is that, while J Street’s perspective is controversial in the U.S., it commands a good deal of support in Israel. “We’ve been dealing with this in Israel since the late 80s and the 90s, from [assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin to the Kadima phenomenon,” said Levy, who negotiated peace accords for multiple left-wing Israeli governments. “If you understand security only as the war on terror and you’re not dealing with the occupation, you’ll never solve the problem. That fundamental change [in perspective] never took place here. We want to be a catalyst in closing that gap.”

According to J Street’s mission statement, the organization “represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own — two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians and the region as a whole.” News of J Street was first reported last month by the New York Jewish Week.

J Street’s founding principles include a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; an “enduring relationship between the U.S. and Israel that promotes their common interests” and that recognizes “Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people;” a multilateral approach to U.S. policy-making in the Middle East; and the negotiated creation of a “viable Palestinian state.” Its advisory council includes prominent American Jewish political, business, religious, academic, media and cultural leaders, including Stride-Rite corporation founder Arnold Hiatt, ex-state department official Morton Halperin and American Jewish University rector Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Additionally, 20 prominent Israelis, including former top officials of the Shin Bet, Mossad and the foreign ministry, have signed a letter supporting J Street.

Ben-Ami sees J Street as an extension of the new liberal mood of decentralized, bottom-up political action — a development in which the Jewish community, in his view, has lagged behind. “There is a change, really, in the way political conditions [exist] in this country,” he said. “From the million donors to Obama, to MoveOn, to the Dean campaign, there’s been a radical sift in American politics in the way power is accumulated and distributed. And that’s a wave of change that has yet to hit the Jewish community.” Ben-Ami envisions a move away from “a small number of large donors essentially holding the community hostage” to its right-wing political views and instead moving toward “an online, netroots feel to endorsements and activism.”

Hovering over J Street is a specter: the specter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

AIPAC, which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” is considered among the most powerful lobbies in America. It raises money to promote an conservative definition of American “support” for Israel, one in which Israeli interests and Arab interests are defined in opposition, particularly pressing its case to members of Congress and successive administrations. It is close to many influential donors and organizations who raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle to fund candidates with the same view. It also possesses an intimidating number of members — more than 100,000 — whom it has cultivated over its 30-year history. Against J Street’s $1.5 million budget for 2008 — for which it has only raised half so far, according to Ben-Ami, from mostly wealthy donors — is AIPAC’s operating budget of nearly $100 million.

More substantially, AIPAC and its occasional allies, like the Zionist Organization of America, are not above intimating that its political opponents are anti-Semetic — as with the campaign against John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt’s critical book “ — something that causes politicians to hew to a circumscribed discussion of Israel policy for fear of being labeled as prejudiced or offending the lobby.

Right-leaning Jewish political action committees raised and spent at least $5 million in every federal election cycle since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with 35 distinct entities and many more individuals spending $10 million in the 2006 cycle alone. That has contributed to an ugly cycle of debate, where some who question the lobby’s influence suggest that Jews play an out-sized and nefarious role in U.S. politics; and the lobby’s allies in the media — a right-leaning group that includes Fox News, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, Commentary and New Republic magazines, as well as a bevy of commentators — often counter-suggest that criticism of Israel is prima facie anti-Semetic.

Jews are not immune to the charge of anti-Semitism emanating from AIPAC or its allies. Last month, the Zionist Organization of America denounced the director of Hillel at Harvard University, Bernie Steinberg, for “violat[ing] the Jewish law of not bearing false witness, and play[ing] into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

Even liberal Jews can feel uneasy by the vitriol directed at Israel by many on the left — a concern that J Street will have to address. “Peace-making has acquired a very bad reputation over the years in the Jewish community,” Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told The Washington Post, “and there is a widespread fear that U.S. intervention on behalf of peace will lead to pressure on Israel.”

AIPAC’s allies have already suggested that J Street may not achieve much. “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” its former executive director, Morris Amitay, told the leading Jewish newspaper, The Forward, for today’s edition. “The question is, will they have any effect on pro-Israel initiatives in Congress? I’m guessing they won’t.”

Others go further than that. Asked on the phone if J Street would add any value to the debate about Israel, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America — which some consider more hard-line than AIPAC — responded simply, “No.”

Klein said he sees little difference between J Street’s statement of principles and the positions that AIPAC already supports. “All you’re doing is creating yet another Jewish lobby group supporting major concessions to the Palestinian Arabs, giving statehood to the Palestinian Arabs, before there’s a cultural change that makes that state viable,” Klein said. “All they’re telling me is that they want a Hamas-like state in Judea and Samaria like the one in Gaza. My eyes are open. Their eyes are closed.” Judea and Samaria are the Jewish biblical names for the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Levy and Ben-Ami insist that they’re not working in opposition to AIPAC specifically. But they feel that the terms of the debate over Israel set, in part, by AIPAC, end up alienating many pro-Israel American Jews. “A not-insignificant constituency says, ‘I care about Israel, but wait a minute: I have to support [evangelical conservative pastor] John Hagee, and this administration’s crazy neo-con agenda, and Doug Feith, and Ann Coulter, and Fox News? And my alternative to that is being anti-Israel?’” said Levy, who served as a peace negotiator in the Rabin and Barak Israeli governments, as well as an aide to dovish Israeli politician Yossi Beilin.

Levy’s contention is that that cohort of liberal American Jews — a breakaway 45 percent plurality, according to the American Jewish Committee’s 2007 study — instead believe that “My Jewish values and my universal values tell me that Israel should be secure, but doesn’t need to be in an occupation” of Palestinian territory.

Other Jewish pro-peace organizations have existed for years: the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and Americans For Peace Now, to name three. But none of those organizations raised money for U.S. politicians. “Liberals are loath to be single-issue,” observed M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC official now with the Israel Policy Forum, something he said works to the peace movement’s disadvantage. “For members of Congress under the current system, the only way to prove you exist is to give money.”

AIPAC and other right-wing Jewish groups opened their wallets, yet liberal Jewish groups did not. As a result, Rosenberg continued, the majority of members of Congress are “inflexibly hawkish on Israel, because it’s the safe position. But that can change. Take the fear away of those there — the fear that the lobby is gonna get them.”

AIPAC representatives did not return a request for comment for this story.

Ben-Ami and Levy intend to change the debate by raising money for candidates and lobbying for and against legislation. In June, according to Ben-Ami, it will make its first wave of candidate endorsements, one for Senate and also for “a handful of house races.” While no funding goal has been set for this year, J Street launched its website, jstreet.org, Tuesday morning, and began registering members. Ben-Ami expressly models it on MoveOn.org, the Internet-era “netroots” liberal powerhouse that boasts more than 3 million members nationwide.

The two founders are expecting their actions to attract a backlash from right-wing Jewish groups and the media outlets who present a conservative line on Israel. Already, The New Republic is reportedly preparing an article attacking J Street.

But Ben-Ami and Levy welcome the attacks. Levy, though a long-time peace negotiator, is eager to debate what it means to be pro-Israel, and draws a comparison between AIPAC and the hard-liners who ended up compromising the Jewish future millennia ago. “We’ll say, ‘Zealots like you led to the destruction of previous Jewish commonwealths,’” Levy said. “We’re not going to be intimidated.”

*Note: This piece has been corrected to clarify that AIPAC does not give money to political candidates. *

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