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Liberals push criticism of Israel’s Gaza strikes

An Israeli soldier runs for cover near the Gaza border as a siren warns of incoming rockets, Dec. 28, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

An Israeli soldier runs for cover near the Gaza border as a siren warns of incoming rockets, Dec. 28, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

WASHINGTON (JTA) —



In the first sign of a post-election struggle to set the American Jewish community’s Middle East agenda, a quartet of liberal pro-Israel advocacy groups is criticizing Jerusalem’s decision to launch retaliatory attacks against Gaza.


J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum all issued statements defending Israel’s right to strike Hamas installations in Gaza but saying, with varying degrees of forcefulness, that such actions will be counterproductive and damage Israel’s security in the long run. In their statements, they called for intervention by the United States and the international community  to restore a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

In addition to issuing a statement, J Street organized a petition that calls for "immediate and strong U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to urgently reinstate a meaningful ceasefire that ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel and lifts the blockade of Gaza." The organization’s online director, Isaac Luria, sent out a message Tuesday saying that J Street was already citing the 14,000 signatures collected as of Tuesday in conversations with President-elect Obama’s transition team and Congress.

Two days earlier Luria sent an e-mail message under the heading "Gaza: Stop the Violence," in which he started out by declaring that the "Israeli Defense Forces struck the Gaza Strip, leaving hundreds dead and wounded — pushing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict further down a path of never-ending violence." In the message, which did not mention that the bulk of Palestinian fatalities were Hamas militants, Luria stated that "neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong," before calling on the incoming Obama administration to "lead an early and serious effort to achieve a comprehensive diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts."


Representatives of J Street and the other three groups say it is difficult to gauge how much resonance their message is having in Washington circles, because Congress is in recess and the new administration is still three weeks away from taking office

. But, according to J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, even if the groups fail to influence U.S. decision-making this time around, speaking out is a “really important first step” in sparking a discussion in the Jewish community and the wider political world.



“Part of our role in this is to create that space” and “say right up front this is an action we’re going to stand up and question,” Ben-Ami told JTA. "We’re going to question whether this is the right strategy."


"This is a test to see whether there is a need and support" for that viewpoint, he added.

In his statement over the weekend, Ben-Ami said that "

real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability."

The positions staked out by J Street and the other liberal groups fly in the face of the unabashed support for Israel’s Gaza operation offered by the Jewish community’s two major public-policy umbrella groups, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Individual member groups of the two umbrella organizations have offered their own statements of support, as well.

J Street’s immediate criticism of the Israeli strikes stood in sharp contrast even to the Meretz Party, a standard-bearer of the Israeli Left, which offered support for the initial round of attacks, before calling for a ceasefire.

Ben-Ami will have a chance to take J Street’s message directly to Jewish communal activists from across the country when they gather in Washington at the end of February for the annual policy plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The JCPA, an umbrella organization that brings together national Jewish organizations, the synagogue movements and dozens of local Jewish communities to formulate policy positions, has invited Ben-Ami to participate in a panel discussion on Israel advocacy.

Brit Tzedek’s executive director, Diane Balser, said that she saw the statements as a “step” in forging “greater momentum” for a stronger alternative Jewish voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “My hope would be to coordinate more and more,” she said, particularly with an Obama administration that is seen as more sympathetic to their viewpoint than the Bush administration was.

Ben-Ami, though, said he didn’t think J Street and other like-minded groups would have much impact on any kind of congressional reaction to the Hamas operation when the House and Senate return to work next week. “I would be shocked if what came out of Congress was anything but a ringing endorsement of Israel,” he said, noting that in the immediate early days of a military operation the typical and understandable reaction is strong backing of the Jewish state.

Indeed, one of the most prominent of the 41 candidates endorsed this fall by J Street’s political action committee, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), released a statement strongly backing Israel’s decision and making no mention of American intervention.

“It is unconscionable for anyone to expect that the Israeli government or any other government for that matter, to sit idly as thousands of deadly rockets rain down on their cities and threaten the well-being and security of their citizens,” Wexler said. “I urge the international community to join the United States in denouncing the daily terrorist acts carried out by Hamas and support Israel’s right to self-defense and security."

Instead, Ben-Ami said, J Street hopes to have an impact on the Middle East debate six to 12 months down the road, via congressional and administration action that focuses on achieving a political settlement.

The director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington office, M.J. Rosenberg, said the emergence of J Street could add a new dynamic to the work of dovish pro-Israel groups.

“Because they raised money for people’s campaigns, they have a different position vis-a-vis members of Congress,” he said, compared to a organization like IPF, which focuses on providing information and lobbying.

But Rosenberg said that while seeing four groups issue somewhat similar statements draws additional attention to their viewpoint, he downplayed a suggestion that it represented the first salvo of a more forceful effort to spread that message. “What we’ve been doing is the same,” he said. “The difference is the situation is worse” and “efforts might intensify because this is so bad.”

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir agreed with Rosenberg that the recent statements did not mark the launch of a formal campaign, adding that the Gaza operation was not a particularly good vehicle to start such an effort. “We don’t view the issue of the Israeli operation as a black-and-white, clear-cut issue,” Nir said. “It wouldn’t serve as a strong rallying cause because it is so nuanced.”

But Nir said that Americans for Peace Now was strategizing with like-minded organizations on possible joint congressional action; he added that the group sent out an action alert to more than 10,000 activists urging them to write to President Bush and President-elect Obama on the issue. “We’re reminding people that since the objective here is political, military force alone cannot achieve” the desired outcome, Nir said. “There needs to be a diplomatic component.”

A top communal Jewish leader questioned the dovish groups’ positions. The director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, wondered why IPF’s statement first called for an end to hostilities before commenting on the situation and defending Israel’s right to strike. “I find that skewed,” he said, because Hamas didn’t listen to calls to halt its rocket fire in recent weeks.

Foxman rejected J Street’s statement that “there is no military solution to what is fundamentally a political conflict,” saying it “does a disservice” by lumping Hamas into the general Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“They’re not interested in negotiating,” Foxman said. “They’re a terrorist organization. Why should they be treated by our community as a legitimate partner to negotiations?”

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