James Besser reports in the New York Jewish Week about the launch of a new political action committee aimed at supporting dovish congressional candidates – and, in Britain’s Prospect magazine, Gershom Gorenberg says that’s a good thing.
Dubbed the J-Street Project — “K Street” has become a cipher for Washington’s lobbying establishment and “J Street,” missing from Washington’s downtown grid, has become a local “in” joke — the new project kicks off with a hush-hush fundraiser next Monday hosted by former Clinton administration official Jeremy Ben Ami and Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. The group will be publicly launched around the middle of April; organizers said they will not speak publicly about the group until then.
“For too long, the loudest American voices in political and policy debates have been those on the far right — often Republican neoconservatives or extreme Christian Zionists,” according to the invitation. “J Street aims to change that. We are the first and only lobby and PAC (political action committee) dedicated to ensuring Israel’s security, changing the direction of American policy in the Middle East and opening up American political debate about Israel and the Middle East.”
While sources say the structure and initial goals of the new group are still in flux, it is expected to raise money for congressional candidates who advocate a stronger U.S. leadership role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and multilateral solutions to the region’s problems.
The group will be headed by Ben-Ami, who served as deputy domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and later as a media consultant. Ben-Ami has worked with several Jewish peace groups, including the Center for Middle East Peace and the Geneva Initiative-North America.
So the first priority of a real pro-Israel lobby should be pushing for the most active possible US role in brokering a two-state solution. As Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher has pointed out, the US has succeeded in advancing Arab-Israeli peace only when an emissary representing “the full prestige of the American president” has come to the region for extended negotiations, as Henry Kissinger, secretary of state, did after the 1973 war.
The negotiator has to propose compromises and then push hard for them. The US must also provide incentives. It should offer funds to resettle Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian state and to relocate Israeli settlers within Israel. But the offers should have tough conditions: for the Palestinians, giving up on resettling refugees within Israel; for Israel, evacuating settlements that it has heretofore insisted it has to keep. The liberal Israel lobby should work on Capitol Hill to support such funding for peace.
Diplomacy also means effective pressure on both sides and on the relevant Arab states. The US should insist that the Palestinian authority in the West Bank disarm all armed factions that remain in its territory. But the US will need to lean on Israel too. Right now, the Israeli public has no idea how much the state spends on settlement. American insistence on financial transparency as a condition for current aid levels would serve Israeli democracy and increase domestic backing for a settlement freeze. AB Yehoshua is right that the US should finally show real displeasure that outposts have not been taken down. That’s an example of how Washington can help an Israeli government do what it knows it should, helping to beat domestic pressures.
Realistically, even a liberal Israel lobby will be more timid than progressive Israelis. Few US Jews will feel comfortable asking for American pressure on Israel. Publicly, the lobby’s task will be to increase support for diplomacy and a two-state solution. But it will also allow more politicians—particularly liberal ones—to say what they really think about Israel/Palestine, safe in the knowledge that there is an alternative lobby to back them with money and votes. Quietly, it should counterbalance lobbying by Aipac for congress to tie the president’s hands in negotiations. If a peace process really does get moving, expect an Aipac-backed congressional resolution on the need to keep Jerusalem united as the capital of Israel—an American position that would undermine the talks. The liberal lobby’s task would be to push the pragmatic stance that the future of the Holy City must be agreed by both sides.
But a real pro-Israel policy extends beyond the Palestinian issue. Renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria are in both Israeli and American interests. If the talks succeed, they would lead to a cold peace—which is much better than the current cold war, in which Damascus uses Hamas and Hizbullah as proxies to bleed Israel. Alon Liel—the ex-director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, who last year revealed that he had conducted unofficial back-channel talks with Syria—says that part of any peace deal would be Syria realigning itself with the west. That would weaken Iran’s position in the region, and be a clear American victory. A liberal lobby would promote US backing for such negotiations.
Even on Iran, a liberal lobby could encourage a shift. An Iranian bomb is certainly a serious danger to Israel. But US refusal to negotiate with Tehran means giving up in advance on means to reduce the threat. There are hard-nosed strategic analysts in Israel who advocate a quid pro quo: US acceptance of the Iranian regime in return for an end to uranium enrichment and support for terror groups.
Ultimately, Israel’s goal is to be part of the middle east, not to be a garrison state in conflict with it. To support the most bellicose possible Israeli or US policies is to damage both countries. A liberal voice is needed in Washington to press that message. Perhaps this is another form of hope for a deus ex machina. If so, the winged figure is long overdue.