Will J Street money translate into influence?


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Can fund-raising success translate into Capitol Hill clout?

That’s the question facing J Street after the new liberal pro-Israel political action committee raised nearly $570,000 for 41 U.S. House and Senate candidates — a total far surpassing most other pro-Israel PACs.

Even some of the group’s critics called J Street’s fund-raising prowess impressive for an organization that officially launched just last April. But with an election just completed in the United States and one on the horizon in Israel, many said it is still too early to judge exactly how and whether J Street can also make a mark in the halls of the U.S. Congress. For now the organization is pointing to its fund-raising success as progress.

“Our hope is what we did in this cycle will demonstrate there is political support for a broad range of views of what it means to be pro-Israel,” said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami, whose organization calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and advocates for an increased U.S. role in finding diplomatic solutions to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its PAC operates independently from its advocacy and lobbying organization.

J Street has marketed itself as an alternative to the more hawkish views that it claims dominate many organizations. Ben-Ami said its success proved “there isn’t a stranglehold” or “monopoly” on “where political support” for Israel comes from.

Ben-Ami said he hoped to see less support for measures “critical” of the peace process, such as efforts to curb U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as “more moderate” and less “hawkish language” in the letters and resolutions that regularly circulate in the House and Senate dealing with Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the summer, J Street protested an appearance by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at a pro-Israel gathering organized by Pastor John Hagee and the decision, ultimately reversed, by Jewish organizations to invite Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to an anti-Iran rally.

More important than any of these efforts, or the candidates J Street helped elect to Congress, may be the new president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, said pro-Israel legislators and activists.

With President-elect Barack Obama having pledged to step up U.S. involvement and the Bush administration already in the midst of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks, J Street’s desire for robust American engagement is likely to be a centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy in the coming months and years.

“J Street is supporting the direction in which the situation is moving,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, adding that he would “take my hat off, or keep my kipah on” for “anybody who can organize in six months and raise half a million dollars.”

Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and longtime Democratic fund-raiser and activist, agreed that the approach taking hold in Washington lines up relatively close with J Street’s stated positions.

“Barack Obama will certainly test ways in which the United States can re-engage,” he said, “and I think the vast majority of American Jews will support that.”

Grossman predicted that “the perceived gulf” between J Street and others in the Jewish community “will be much more a distinction without a difference.”

Of course, that hasn’t prevented tensions or perceived rivalries in the past. Many liberals, for example, hailed J Street as a much-needed alternative and corrective to AIPAC, even though the influential pro-Israel lobby was advocating a two-state solution and U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, some veteran voices were quick to slam J Street.

“They’re willing to take a very dovish view” and “of course there’s some support out there,” said Morris Amitay, founder and treasurer of the political action committee Washington PAC, and a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But he said “the proof will be in the pudding” — whether the pro-Israel resolutions dealing with the peace process, like the ones to which Ben-Ami referred, receive anything less than the 400 votes they customarily get in the House of Representatives. Amitay said he was glad to be on the 400-vote side.

Ben Chouake, the president of the New Jersey-based pro-Israel NORPAC, which says it raised $1.1 million, said that J Street did “an excellent job” for its first time out, but noted that they endorsed 39 Democrats to just 2 Republicans  — Reps. Geoff Davis of Kentucky and Charles Boustany of Louisiana. NORPAC and most other pro-Israel PACs split their donations fairly close to 50-50 between the parties.

“They should call themselves LJ Street,” with the “L” standing for “liberal,” he joked.

More seriously, Chouake said there was nothing wrong with J Street backing only members of one party, but that the group should be more open and honest about it.

Ben-Ami said J Street would love to endorse more members of the GOP, but there simply aren’t that many Republicans now who agree with J Street’s positions.

“More Democrats happen to agree with us,” he said.

One concrete measure of J Street’s success was its ability to convince candidates, including incumbents, to accept its endorsement, some observers said.

“I think that J Street’s success was mainly in getting a significant number of members of Congress to receive its endorsement,” said an official with one pro-Israel organization. “Receiving J Street’s endorsement is akin to a declaration of independence on Mideast policy. It means foregoing the financial support of the big right-leaning PACs, and that requires real courage.”

Amitay, a critic of J Street from its birth — he called the group part of the “blame Israel first” crowd — announced that his organization would not back any candidate that took J Street’s endorsement. Along those lines, he told J Street endorsee Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) that he would no longer benefit from Washington PAC donations.

Amitay said he was planning to speak with two other Washington PAC beneficiaries who also received the J Street hechsher, Davis and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), about their acceptance of the endorsement.

Not all pro-Israel PACs are forcing candidates to choose. Chouake said he didn’t care who J Street endorsed and selected candidates based on the group’s existing criteria.

Thirty-two of the 41 candidates J Street backed won election, with 24 of the winners being incumbents. Two of those endorseed — Democrats Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Ethan Berkowitz of Alaska — are in races that have yet to be called. In addition, J Street-backed Democrat Tom Martin is an underdog in his runoff nex month with Republican Saxby Chambliss in Georgia.

J Street employed a less traditional fund-raising approach in outraising dozens of other pro-Israel PACs that in some cases have been around for decades. At nearly all other pro-Israel PACs, money is donated to the PAC, whose leadership takes that pool and decides which candidates should receive it. There is a limit of $5,000 per candidate per election — the primary and the general election — for a total of $10,000 per cycle.

J Street did raise a small amount using the conventional method, but most of its donations came with the organization acting as a “conduit,” Ben-Ami explained. For example, a donor would pledge to give J Street $1,000 and J Street would “recommend” certain candidates to support. The donor then would decide where to direct his or her dollars and write a check to J Street, which would subsequently cut a check to those candidates accompanied by information outlining specifically who the money came from.

Utilizing this method allowed J Street to raise unlimited amounts for its endorsees because contributions counted against the $4,600 limit on donations that an individual can give to a specific candidate during an election cycle, not the $10,000-per-candidate restriction on political action committees. So, for example, J Street managed to send $91,000 to Democrat Jeff Merkley in his race against incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), while PACs using the more traditional method would only have been able to distribute $10,000 to a candidate in the race.

NORPAC also acted as a conduit using a slightly different method. Chouake said his group would sponsor an event for a politician and collect individual checks made out to the candidate, bundling them and giving them to the candidate under the NORPAC umbrella. Like in the case of J Street, the individual is credited with the contribution, but NORPAC receives recognition as well.

While both methods are legal, most PACs choose not to operate this way because the reporting process is much more complicated and time consuming, said experts.

Amitay said it is was comparing apples and oranges to put his PAC, which contributed more than $170,000 to candidates using the more traditional method, next to J Street’s model. Ben-Ami disagreed and responded with his own fruit metaphor, saying J Street was merely “injecting the apple with growth hormone.”

Some pro-Israel activists noted that J Street’s total represented only a fraction of the money raised by all other pro-Israel PACs.

The Open Secrets Web site totaled more than $2.5 million in donations from all single-issue pro-Israel PACs for the 2008 cycle, and that doesn’t include the additional millions of dollars pro-Israel individuals donated and raised for candidates across the country without the backing of an organization, Grossman said.

“I have enormous respect” for what J Street accomplished, he said, but it needs to be put into “context.”

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