J Street celebrates 10 years changing Washington’s outlook on Israel

Article Summary
The liberal Jewish group has seen its influence soar by offering an alternative take on the Iran deal and Middle East peace.

In Washington, sometimes what doesn’t happen is as significant as what does.

For example, every March for the past several decades, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the powerful pro-Israel lobby best known by its acronym, AIPAC — holds its annual convention in Washington, drawing thousands of supporters, lawmakers and top administration officials in a boisterous display of support for the Jewish state and the US-Israel relationship. In the lead-up to the convention, the lobby traditionally garners nearly unanimous support in Congress for some form of pro-Israel legislation so AIPAC can showcase its influence on both sides of the aisle.

In advance of this year’s gathering, AIPAC — which dutifully supports the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — wanted Congress to approve a measure that would expand existing prohibitions against anti-Israel boycotts by punishing anyone who blacklists products made in Israel’s West Bank settlements. It also sought broad bipartisan endorsements in the Senate for a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, backing his efforts to win European support to toughen the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But those efforts drew fire from J Street, a much smaller lobby with progressive views on Israel. According to Democratic congressional aides, the group lobbied lawmakers to oppose the anti-boycott measure, arguing it not only blurred the line between Israel proper and the occupied West Bank but stifled constitutionally protected free speech as well. J Street lobbyists also urged senators to shun the Iran letter, bringing Israeli security experts to Capitol Hill to warn that the Trump administration’s efforts to alter the nuclear deal were endangering both the agreement and Israeli security.

The result is that most Democrats now oppose the anti-boycott bill, which remains bottled up in committee. And the Iran letter, also lacking Democratic support, was never sent.

The thwarting of the two initiatives was the latest in a series of political victories claimed by J Street in recent years that have bolstered its standing as a key player when it comes to influencing congressional Democrats on Israel-related issues. Behind those victories is not only J Street’s lobbying prowess but also its political action committee, which provides the sweetener of campaign money for Democratic incumbents and first-time candidates. As a result, J Street has gained recognition as one of the most effective voices among progressive Jewish groups in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran nuclear agreement and a return to a more balanced US Middle East policy.

“You have changed the conversation,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, told J Street’s annual convention earlier this month. “You have moved us forward in a new dialogue as a nation — a nation in support of Israel, but a nation that is dedicated to a vision of a two-state solution.”

To be sure, even as J Street marks its 10th anniversary, the dovish lobby still isn’t in the same league as AIPAC, with its legions of wealthy donors, its influence over which candidates receive hefty donations from pro-Israel political action committees and its long list of legislative achievements. And unlike the White House access that J Street enjoyed during the Barack Obama administration, the organization appears to have little influence with President Donald Trump, who recently upended decades of US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May. In yet another reversal of long-standing US policy, the State Department’s annual human rights report, released on April 20, no longer uses the phrase “Occupied Territories” to describe the legal status of the West Bank, Gaza Strip or Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, the Jewish weekly, and an authority on American Jewish politics, said that during the same 10 years that it took for J Street to grow into a viable voice on the left of the American Jewish community, Netanyahu’s policies have moved many American Jews to the right. In these quarters, Goldberg told Al-Monitor, “J Street is seen as an enemy of Israel, or at least a member of the tribe who’s pissing inside the tent.”

That’s fine with J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, who welcomes his organization’s reputation as a force that has succeeded in disrupting the earlier political dynamic in Washington, whereby AIPAC and other large Jewish defense organizations were able to rule almost any criticism of Israel out of bounds.

“We created this space to allow meaningful debate, not only about Israel’s policies but also around the notion that there are different ways to be legitimately pro-Israel,” Ben-Ami told Al-Monitor. “To be pro-Israel no longer means supporting the policies of the government of Israel, right or wrong. You can be against settlements and in favor of a two-state solution even when the Israeli government supports settlements and no longer favors two states.”

In a J Street panel discussion last year, Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List — an organization that recruits Democratic women to run for office — described how much the political landscape had shifted since J Street arrived on the scene in 2008.

Working in the 1990s as a finance director for several Democratic candidates running for Congress, Schriock said she regularly sought donations from the Jewish community. “But before you went to the Jewish community, you had a conversation with the lead AIPAC person in your state,” she recalled, adding that the AIPAC representative told her that her candidates needed a position paper on Israel, which AIPAC then provided. “And we made that [the candidate’s position] paper,” she said. AIPAC "cornered the market" on candidates’ positions on Israel until Ben-Ami founded J Street to challenge AIPAC’s control over the Israel debate, Schriock said.

Even then, she added, many Democratic candidates initially were reluctant to seek J Street’s endorsement, fearing pro-Israel PAC money would dry up. But over the years, the organization steadily drew support from Democrats and younger American Jews who had grown increasingly uneasy over Israel’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians.

A major turning point for J Street came in March 2015 when Netanyahu, in an address to Congress, urged US lawmakers to side with Israel against Obama and oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. While Republicans fell in line behind Netanyahu, outraged Democrats rallied behind Obama and the nuclear deal, shattering the bipartisan support that Israel always had enjoyed in Congress until then.

“That was the critical moment in breaking the decadeslong pattern of Israel politics in Washington, DC,” Ben-Ami said. “That will go down in history as the moment when Israel became a partisan domestic issue.”

Public opinion surveys show the partisan divide in sympathies for Israel and Palestinians is now the widest it has been in 40 years. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in January, 79% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27% of Democrats.

In a major test of J Street’s influence following the signing of the Iran deal, the lobby’s political fundraising arm contributed $3.6 million to its preferred candidates in the 2016 elections, helping all Democratic incumbents who supported the pact win re-election in 2016. Congressional aides credit J Street with convincing Senate Democrats to block draft legislation from Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker that would have changed presidential certification requirements for the Iran deal and made it easier for Congress to reinstate sanctions.

But J Street has had some major setbacks as well. In 2016, the organization was caught off guard when lawmakers, apparently acting at the behest of several right-wing pro-Israel groups, took a controversial trade bill that drew no distinction between products made in Israel and those made in the occupied West Bank and attached it to must-pass legislation in the dead of night. The legislation passed, further weakening the West Bank’s legal status as an occupied territory.

The biggest challenge that J Street faces, however, is the worsening climate on the ground for any Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli troops on the Gaza Strip border have left nearly 40 Palestinians dead so far from Israeli gunfire. At the same time, the Netanyahu government is ignoring a call by two-thirds of Israel’s retired generals to embrace the 2002 Arab League peace plan, which offers Israel peace, recognition and normalized relations with the entire Arab and Muslim worlds in exchange for a two-state solution. Trump claims his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is in the final stages of crafting a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, but no details of the alleged plan have emerged. Meanwhile, a poll taken earlier this year shows declining support among both Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution.

“The fact that J Street has become a viable voice and that everyone now knows their name speaks to their success over the past 10 years,” The Forward’s Goldberg said. “But they’re trying to do something that’s much bigger than anybody realizes, which is to change the reality on the ground both in Israel and America, and to get Washington to become more active in pushing Israel toward peace.”

With no foreseeable access to the White House, J Street is focusing now on preventing Congress from passing any more legislation that could further undermine the chances of a two-state solution. After all, Trump has noted that by relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he will be the first president to implement a 1995 law passed overwhelmingly by Congress that ordered the move. Previous presidents all invoked national security to put off the embassy move, which they saw as prejudging the legal status of Jerusalem — claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital.

To that end, J Street has raised some $2 million so far to re-elect more than half of the Democratic incumbents in the House and Senate in the 2018 midterms and to help elect more progressive first-time candidates. The organization, which has grown tenfold over the past decade, is now a $10 million operation with a 60-member staff, seven regional offices around the country and a nationwide membership of 200,000, said J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum.

“We’re now in a period of unprecedented [foreign policy] chaos,” Ben-Ami said. “Eventually, however, we’ll have another president of some flavor who is going to try to do something [to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] the old-fashioned way, with diplomacy. That’s what we’re waiting for.”

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Found in: Jerusalem

Jonathan Broder writes about defense and foreign policy from Washington. He's been covering national security issues for more than two decades, with positions as a foreign desk editor at National Public Radio, a senior editor at Congressional Quarterly and a senior writer at Newsweek. Before moving to Washington, Broder spent 20 years as an award-winning foreign correspondent in the Middle East, South Asia, China and East Asia for the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. On Twitter: @BroderJonathan

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