By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Some of the country's most prominent Jewish liberals are forming a political action committee and lobbying group aimed at dislodging what they consider the excessive hold of neoconservatives and evangelical Christians on U.S. policy toward Israel.
The group is planning to channel political contributions to favored candidates in perhaps a half-dozen campaigns this fall, the first time an organization focused on Israel has tried to play such a direct role in the political process, according to its organizers.
Organizers said they hope those efforts, coupled with a separate lobbying group that will focus on promoting an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, will fill a void left by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and other Jewish groups that they contend have tilted to the right in recent years.
The lobbying group will be known as J Street and the political action group as JStreetPAC. The executive director for both will be Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House.
"The definition of what it means to be pro-Israel has come to diverge from pursuing a peace settlement," said Alan Solomont, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser involved in the initiative. In recent years, he said, "We have heard the voices of neocons, and right-of-center Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals, and the mainstream views of the American Jewish community have not been heard."
Solomont is a top fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but the organizers include supporters and fundraisers for both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Many prominent figures in the American Jewish left, former lawmakers and U.S. government officials, and several prominent Israeli figures, as well as activists who have raised money for the Democracy Alliance and MoveOn.org, are also involved.
A controversial essay in 2006 by two eminent academics, Harvard's Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, argued that a powerful pro-Israel lobby that includes Jewish groups, evangelical Christians and others has actively served to steer U.S. policy in a pro-Israel direction, often against the U.S. national interest.
The essay, a precursor to a 2007 book, triggered an angry debate among supporters of Israel and beyond, and even those who have been critical of groups such as AIPAC, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, said the thesis was either wrong or overdrawn.
"The genesis of this is really the frustration on the part of a very substantial portion of the American Jewish community that despite the fact that there is broad support for a peace-oriented policy in the Middle East, there doesn't seem to be the political will to actually carry it out," Ben-Ami said. "We have not been effective at transmitting the message that there is political support for these positions in the American Jewish community and their allies."
Officials with AIPAC declined to comment on the formation of the new competitor. But the organizers' behind-the-scenes efforts in the past two years have been generating buzz, and some consternation, in some quarters of the politically active Jewish community. Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, raised questions about the viability of the new group. "I believe that AIPAC has very broad support and will continue to enjoy it," he said.
Even supporters said the new groups will be hard-pressed to match AIPAC's influence in Washington. AIPAC has more than 100,000 members, 18 offices around the country and an endowment of more than $100 million--dwarfing what organizers say will be a first-year budget for J Street of about $1.5 million.
AIPAC has cultivated alliances across the political aisle, especially in recent years with President Bush, who has worked hard to build good relations with leading Jewish groups. But AIPAC also works closely with congressional Democrats and the leading Democratic presidential candidates, and it sees itself as representing a broad cross section of Jews with an interest in fostering strong ties between Israel and the United States.
Some veteran Middle East experts said the new group faces the political reality that many American Jews have become disillusioned over the years with the peace process and what they consider to be the intransigence, hostility and--in some cases--terrorism of would-be Palestinian partners. While Bush early on in his administration grew skeptical of the peacemaking efforts of President Clinton, he received very little push-back from organized American Jewry.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the group "has a very steep hill to climb because peacemaking has acquired a bad reputation over the years in the Jewish community, and there is a widespread fear that U.S. intervention on behalf of peace will lead to pressure on Israel."
Perhaps the biggest difference between the new effort and the operations of existing Jewish or pro-Israel groups is the formation of a political action committee that endorses candidates and channels donations into political races -- something AIPAC does not do.
The initial efforts will be relatively modest: Ben-Ami said the group aims to try to raise at least $50,000 or more for a handful of campaigns this fall as a "test case." But the group intends to raise its profile in future campaign cycles, and some major liberal fundraisers have already committed to the venture, including Solomont, high-tech entrepreneur Davidi Gilo and former New York City corporation counsel Victor Kovner, a supporter of Clinton's presidential bid.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.