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The Nation

New Path Runs Through J Street

Katrina vanden Heuvel

For too long now, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues of war and peace in the Middle East, the mainstream media and too many politicians in the US have deferred to the most extreme right-wing positions represented by organizations such as The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christian Zionist communities.

In fact, there is a far more open and dynamic debate about the peace process in Israel than in the US. (For example, over 64 percent of Israelis favor direct talks with Hamas.) But a new lobby organization and PAC -- J Street -- aims to end the right-wing monopoly and give voice to the substantial number of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans with more moderate views on these issues.

Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami told me last week, "The important thing is that there's a diversity of opinion in the American Jewish community. There's no monolithic view... there's an argument. And that's what J Street's about - it's about the fact that we deserve representation too in this debate. We understand that there are a substantial number of American Jews who hold very right-wing positions when it comes to Israel and they should have a voice in the public policy process. But there's also a very substantial number of American Jews who hold very moderate views on Israel and they also need a voice, and we should have that argument just like we do on any other public policy issue without resorting to name-calling, without labeling one side antisemitic or self-hating Jews and all of that. We should discuss the merits."

Ben-Ami finds the knee-jerk reaction to people expressing views that differ from organizations such as AIPAC troubling and an anomaly in Jewish culture and the intellectual tradition. "If you have three Jews over for brunch on a Sunday and you say, 'What flavor bagels should I buy?' you'll end up buying 10 bagels because people will have all sorts of different opinions," he said. "[But] if you ask, 'What do you think about Israel?' you're only allowed to give one opinion? It's just not Jewish. It's not part of the fabric of our society -- that we don't argue, that we don't have different opinions, that we don't see the nuance. I mean, that's what it means to be Jewish, right?"

Since its launch just over two months ago, JStreetPAC has already issued its inaugural round of endorsements of Congressional candidates, including: Rep. Charles Boustany (LA-07), Darcy Burner (Candidate, WA-08), Rep. Stephen Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Donna Edwards (MD-04), Debbie Halvorson (Candidate, IL-11), Mary Jo Kilroy (Candidate, OH-15), and Dennis Shulman (Candidate, NJ-05).

"Never before have candidates received tangible political support for agreeing that pursuing both a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and aggressive diplomacy to solve political conflicts in the Middle East should be central to American foreign policy," Ben-Ami said. "These endorsements -- and the entire J Street initiative -- will open up much-needed political space needed for honest discussion of American foreign policy and for debate over what policies are in fact in the best interests of both the United States and of Israel."

Ultimately, that is what J Street aims to do -- create the necessary political space in the US for our representatives to take strong, pro-peace positions that differ from the hawkish status quo we have seen over the last decade. J Street ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling out mainstream pro-Israel organizations on their silence in the wake of the Gaza ceasefire, talks with Syria and overtures to Lebanon. J Street also initiated a letter-writing campaign on the same issue.

"The whole thrust of [the J Street] effort is not quite yet understood which is that it's a political effort," Ben-Ami said. "At the end of the day this isn't really about the substance of the issue because there's not a substance problem here.... Most members of congress actually get the issue now, and they understand what we should be doing. There's just no political space for anybody to actually say it out loud and start to lead. And so I think at times people still are fighting the fight over the substance, and want to talk about the substance, when in reality J Street is all about the politics. This is a political problem and J Street's a political solution. We're putting votes and resources behind candidates who are willing to change the political space."

With our increasingly militaristic foreign policy -- including what apperas to be the Democratic Leadership's complicity in a $400 million covert ops program in Iran as revealed in Seymour Hersh's important news article this week -- I'm not as convinced as Ben-Ami that our representatives would automatically do the right thing if they had greater political space. I asked whether it would take some prodding and grassroots organizing from groups like J Street? But he's steadfast in his confidence.


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"I think that what there is clearly agreement on is people understand that a militaristic approach to conflicts with political roots isn't the right answer," he said. "And if you close the doors of members offices and you talk to them and you talk to their staffs, it is very clear that they do understand these issues and they do understand what would be a good direction for foreign policy. And it is clear that if they had the political space, the outcomes would be different.... [For example], I'm not sure that J Street would endorse a direct US government approach to Hamas.... But shouldn't there be quiet diplomacy taking place between intermediaries and third parties? Shouldn't the US get out of the way if Israel wants to talk to Hamas which it obviously has done? Shouldn't it not discourage Egypt and other entities from playing useful roles? Absolutely. And I think you would find support for that set of policies."

As far as Iran and moves by the Bush Administration towards military confrontation, Ben-Ami spoke clearly on J Street's position. "There's no question that one of the most important issues in the coming months that relates to the Middle East and American foreign policy is how we're going to deal with Iran," he said. "We've been really clear that we do not support a first resort to military means to counteract the threat for Iran. We believe there is a real threat -- you know, we're not going to dismiss the fact that this guy who runs Iran is a lunatic, and that it is dangerous for people like this to have nuclear weapons. We are adamantly opposed to the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. But we think the current policy has been a complete failure and we should be trying a different approach to creating political space for opponents, and to creating political opportunities in Iran, and at least giving assertive diplomacy a shot before we move straight to the military option."

I challenged Ben-Ami about J Street's decision not to directly respond to some of what was said at AIPAC's recent annual meeting in order to assert itself as a progressive counter to that organization.

"It is very important -- and we've made clear from the get-go -- that this is not an anti-AIPAC effort," Ben-Ami said. "Because there are a lot of people who support AIPAC and who do it out of very goodhearted reasons.... So, we are really consciously not anti-AIPAC. We are against the fact that the debate on Israel has been hijacked by the right-wing -- that's right-wing Christian Zionists, right-wing neoconservatives, rightwingers who run major Jewish organizations, but it's not all AIPAC.... The truth is so much more complex and it actually doesn't serve anybody's purpose to make this about AIPAC because it's about the policy - it's about what's best for Israel, it's about what's best for the United States."

But how, then, does J Street envision building a truly level playing field in the face of AIPAC and other right-wing organization's clout, money, and size?

"It's true," Ben-Ami said, "we don't have 30 years to build up a force of equal size and sophistication. What we need is a smart, focused strategy that maximizes bang for the buck. We can't do everything the other side does. We can't match every organizer, every campus group, every conference. What we can do is draw strength from the knowledge that the policy makers and politicians actually know what's right on this issue -- they just need political space to say it. That's why we are focused on -- (1) the demonstrative impact of providing significant financial support to only a handful of races rather than trying to be engaged everywhere; (2) building an online list as quickly as possible since political change is going to be driven from the net in the coming years; and (3) creating a lobby whose purpose is to show members that there really is support for these positions among their existing constituencies and donors."

Time will tell how successful J Street will be in creating the political space necessary to chart a new, more sane path in our pursuit of peace in the Middle East. While I don't agree with 100 percent of its positions -- such as leaving the military option on the table as a way to deal with Iran and nuclear proliferation -- I believe it is a welcome and much needed addition to a political landscape defined until now by excluded voices and alternatives.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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