A top staffer for billionaire philanthropist George Soros met recently with senior representatives of the dovish pro-Israel community to discuss setting up an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, JTA has learned. Morton Halperin, a director of Soros’ Open Society Institute and a veteran of senior positions in the Clinton, Nixon and Johnson administrations, confirmed to JTA that the meeting took place late last month. He would not add details.
“It was a private meeting, it was an effort to get this off the ground,” said Halperin, who directs the institute’s U.S. advocacy.
The meeting focused on how best to press Congress and the Bush administration to back greater U.S. engagement toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to better represent American Jews who don’t buy into AIPAC’s often hawkish policies.
Contacted by JTA, an AIPAC spokesman said he was not aware of the effort, but officials with the group did not express any concern that the new initiative posed a threat.
JTA has learned from a variety of sources that a follow-up meeting focused on funding will take place in New York on Oct. 26.
Soros is to attend, and other major Jewish liberals are invited, including Peter Lewis, who like Soros is a major contributor to MoveOn.org, the Web-based, liberal fund-raising group; Edgar and Charles Bronfman, former liquor magnates who are major contributors to Israel and Jewish causes; and Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman and high-powered West Coast lawyer.
If it comes to fruition, it would be Soros’ first major venture into Israel advocacy. Soros drew fire from some Jews in 2003 when at a conference on funding for Israel, he suggested that Israel bore some responsibility for the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe because of its stiff response to Palestinian terrorism during the intifada.
Oct. 26 also is the date of a New York City retreat for board members of the Israel Policy Forum, a dovish pro-Israel group whose executive director, David Elcott, is leading the new initiative with Halperin. It’s not clear whether the potential funders will meet at the board retreat, or separately.
Another leader of the initiative is Jeremy Ben-Ami, a senior policy adviser to President Clinton who now works for Fenton, one of Washington’s largest public relations outfits.
The late September meeting — no one would give a precise date — took place in Washington.
In addition to Halperin and Elcott, others in attendance were Debra DeLee, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now; Mara Rudman, a Clinton-era member of the National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank; Daniel Levy, a former adviser to dovish Israeli politician Yossi Beilin who now works at the New America Foundation, another Washington think tank; M.J. Rosenberg, director of IPF’s Washington office; Jeremy Rabinovitz, chief of staff to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a congresswoman who often backs positions taken by the dovish pro-Israel groups; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and his deputy, Mark Pelavin; and representatives of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, another dovish, pro-Israel advocacy group.
Three of the groups — IPF, APN and Brit Tzedek — coordinated efforts earlier this year to counter the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, legislation that essentially would cut off the Palestinian Authority from U.S. assistance until it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel. The act is effectively dead, and insiders credit the dovish counterattack.
AIPAC strongly backed the bill, and it passed overwhelmingly in both houses. However, the three dovish groups surprised many members of Congress with the vehemence of their response; Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives said that calls opposing the legislation outpaced those in support by a 3-1 margin.
Additionally, working behind the scenes, the dovish lobbyists helped moderate the Senate version of the act considerably, working in exceptions for assistance to Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate P.A. president, allowing President Bush greater power to waive the sanctions and removing language that would have severely restricted aid to nongovernmental organizations working with the Palestinians.
The differences between the Senate and House versions ultimately were irreconcilable, and the bill never landed on Bush’s desk for signing.
That success was an impetus to the current initiative, participants in the late September meeting said: It fed their perception that AIPAC is not adequately representing American Jews, who polls show have overwhelmingly backed past peace plans.
Participants did not want to go on the record with JTA because goals for the Oct. 26 funders’ meeting are still fluid. Differences are structural as well as philosophical: Some participants speak of wrapping together a number of the existing groups at some future date; others speak of a support structure that would back the groups as they continue to operate separately.
There also are differences about the degree to which the new structure should confront AIPAC.
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