WASHINGTON - A new group of prominent U.S. Jews who believe that the so-called "Israel Lobby" has been dominated for too long by neo-conservatives and other Likud-oriented hawks has launched a new organisation to help fund political candidates who favour a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a stronger U.S. role in achieving it.
Almost two years in the making, the "J Street" project plans to spend some 1.5 million dollars -- about half of which has been pledged to date -- in its first year of operation, a portion of which will go to supporting half a dozen Congressional campaigns for candidates who share its pro-peace and pro-Israel views.
"For too long, the loudest American voices on Israel have come from the far right," noted Jeremy Ben-Ami, a founder and director of both J Street and its political-action affiliate, JStreetPac.
"Those voices have claimed that the only way to be pro-Israel is to support military responses to political problems, to refuse to engage one's adversaries in dialogue and to put off the day of reckoning when hard compromises will be required to achieve a peaceful and secure future for Israel and the entire Middle East," he told reporters via teleconference Tuesday.
"These are not the kind of smart, tough views that serve the long-term interests of the state of Israel, of the United States -- or frankly, the American Jewish community," he added.
The new project has been endorsed by some two dozen prominent Israelis, including three former directors of Israel's foreign ministry, a former chief of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) General Staff, a former commander of the Israeli air force and several other top former top military and intelligence officers.
"Now more than ever, true friendship requires strong American leadership and engagement to move the sides toward a comprehensive two-state solution," the Israeli leaders wrote in a letter to J Street's founders. "With time running out, business-as-usual will not do."
The launch of the new group, which will be led by an advisory council of 100 prominent U.S. Jewish leaders and philanthropists, is aimed primarily at challenging the longstanding dominance of several major Jewish lobby organisations, particularly the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose leadership has generally opposed substantial Israeli concessions in negotiations with Palestinians and Israel's other Arab neighbours.
AIPAC, which is widely seen as Washington's most powerful foreign policy lobby, has forged strong ties with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill where it has long claimed to represent the foreign policy views of the vast majority of U.S. Jews.
Although Jews make up only about two percent of the U.S. population, they provide up to 40 percent of total campaign contributions for Democratic candidates and up to 20 percent for Republican candidates.
AIPAC has also cultivated alliances with prominent right-wing Christian Zionists, such as John Hagee, the Texas televangelist who keynoted AIPAC's annual convention last year. Among other positions, Hagee has repeatedly denounced any consideration by the Israeli government to giving up parts of Jerusalem as part of any peace settlement with the Palestinians. He has also urged President George W. Bush to attack Iran.
Those alliances have created growing discomfort within the larger U.S. Jewish community which, in any event, tends to hold less hawkish views about Israel and its relations with its neighbours than those urged by AIPAC and other more-rightwing national Jewish institutions, according to recent surveys of Jewish opinion by the American Jewish Committee.
Indeed, earlier this month, Eric Yoffie, the president of the influential Union of Reform Judaism, called on Jews to disassociate themselves from Hagee and his organisation, Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Several days later, seven past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, another major national group whose leadership has moved increasingly to the right, defended Hagee as a "true friend of Israel" and CUFI as "among the strongest supporters of Israel in the United States" in a letter to the New York Times.
Founders of J Street, however, clearly question the notion that AIPAC, CUFI, and other organisations that oppose substantial territorial or other concessions by Israel as part of any peace process are indeed strong supporters of Israel, particularly at a time when most experts say the chances for a two-state solution that would preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are diminishing.
"For the sake of Israel, the United States and the world, it is time for American political discourse to re-engage with reality," wrote Ben-Ami, whose grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv and whose father was a militant in the right-wing Revisionist Movement, in a column published Tuesday by the Jewish national daily, The Forward.
"Voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel's core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally-recognised borders."
"We need to have a much more robust discussion in this country about what it means to be pro-Israel," said Victor Kovner, a former Corporation Counsel of New York City and a member of the group's advisory council.
"Many of us have been frustrated to say the least at the presumption held by so many...that, because we are active in the Jewish community, we are somehow supportive of AIPAC and those who have pursued right-wing agendas. I don't support AIPAC; I support a different vision of the Middle East, and, in creating J Street, I think we will make that position clear."
In its policy positions, J Street calls for territorial compromises with the Palestinians based largely on the 1967 borders with reciprocal land swaps and the division of Jerusalem. The group also favours strong U.S. support for Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations and direct, high-level U.S. talks with Iran to address all issues of mutual concern, including ending Iranian opposition to Arab-Israeli peace efforts and its support for armed anti-Israel groups in Palestine and Lebanon.
"There is no way that Israel as a Sparta is going to be in the interests of the Israeli or American people," noted Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who helped negotiate the 1978 Camp David Accords with Egypt under the Jimmy Carter administration.
"The threats to Israel are real, but the way to go after those threats is to bring about different kinds of dialogue and negotiation than we've seen recently," said Lewis, who also serves on the J Street's advisory council.
While the group's goal of 1.5 million dollars in the first year is a fraction of AIPAC's 50-million-dollar annual budget, supporters stressed that this is just the beginning.
"Most Americans and most Jewish Americans support the two-state solution and are tired of having a Likud-oriented lobby speaking in their name," said M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum. "Let's see what happens but I think this could be big."
© 2008 Inter Press Service