CORRECTION: The original version of this story listed New Israel Fund as one of the participating organizations, but NIF denies that it was ever a part of the informal coalition.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — A funny thing happened on the way to modifying punitive legislation targeting Palestinians — Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition.
The groups succeeded in toning down the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called “pro-peace” groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Palestinian matters to how best to deal with Iran — most participants oppose new sanctions.
Participants say the Jewish groups in the new coalition include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. Officials with the groups unabashedly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances for peace in the region.
The list of organizations from outside the Jewish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace and, more recently, the National Iranian American Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the Center for American Progress.
The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even expanded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped sponsor, J Street’s inaugural national conference in October. Participants attend each other’s strategy meetings and, during intense periods — for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian legislation — speak routinely in conference calls.
“It’s informal and it’s based on personal relationships that we’ve developed over the months and years,” said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox streams.
For years, liberal activists — including some associated with the budding coalition — have protested the willingness of establishment Jewish organizations to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bloggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions.
Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way.
Conservative critics have focused on alleged links between J Street and the Iranian group, lumping together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, arguing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress.
Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Americans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC’s talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.
In the wake of Obama’s election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions.
Lara Friedman, an Americans for Peace Now lobbyist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity.
In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions.
“Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position,” the minutes of the meeting stated. “But we all share a view that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement.”
Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman’s presence was unexceptional.
“We seek advice and guidance, including those that don’t share the views of NIAC — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member,” he said. “Lara participated in this meeting and other meetings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy.”