Shmuel Rosner
Haaretz (Opinion)
April 16, 2008 - 6:07pm

On Monday night, Samuel Lewis spoke from a small stage in one of the banquet halls of Washington's Mayflower Hotel to an audience of Anti-Defamation League activists seated around the dinner tables at their annual conference. Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was sharing fond memories from the days of the peace treaty with Egypt. Thirty years have passed, but Lewis still gets emotional when recalling that period, and so do his listeners.

The next day Lewis skipped skillfully from the memories of the past to policies of the future when discussing why his part in the new Jewish-American dovish lobby, whose purpose is to promote meaningful American leadership, and push Israel (and its neighbors) toward peace.

In an afternoon conference call, Lewis is also on the line, explaining that not every attempt at persuasion is "pressure" on Israel. "Pressure," he says, "is a scare word." With him on the line are some of the founders, contributors and directors of the "J Street Project," named after the driving force behind the initiative, Jeremy Ben-Ami, former advisor to president Bill Clinton.

(Clarification: The 'J' for 'Jeremy' thing was meant to be a joke. Apparently, a bad joke. I still find it funny, but people did not understand it. So to make it clear: 'J' is because there is no J Street in Washington, and by creating one this lobby is filling a gap - like the gap it intends to fill in the political world)

After a long gestation period, two results emerged. One - the lobby, which can by law promote a cause, but cannot donate money; and the other - a political action committee (PAC), which will be the donor arm to those politicians who show sufficient allegiance to the organization's somewhat ambiguous goals. On many issues, the similarity between the goals of the group and U.S. official policy may be confusing. In favor of a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Iran; against Israeli settlements in the territories; Jerusalem as Israel's recognized capital after a solution has been reached between the parties; two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace and security.

This is a clean, laundered formulation, behind which is a clearly dovish agenda. The two organizations and a host of public figures joining the project illustrate its intent more than its declared goals: Friends of Peace Now and Brit Tzedek Veshalom - Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. The long list of supporters includes former Senator Lincoln Chafee, not usually on the traditional list of Israel's supporters; Clinton peace-team member Robert Malley; Alan Solomont, a prominent Jewish supporter of Senator Barack Obama; and Victor Kovner, a donor to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Israeli supporters on a seperate list include former minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Foreign Ministry directors general David Kimche, Uri Savir and Alon Liel, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, retired Israel Defense Forces generals Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Amram Mitzna (a former Labor Party chairman and candidate for prime minister in the 2003 election), and Haaretz journalist Daniel Ben-Simon.

The J Street Project supports a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, dialogue with Syria and opposes any use of force against Iran. Its future test: the extent to which it will be able to impact U.S. policy, and how much broad public support it will engender. Its leaders assume that the liberal bent of most American Jews will be to identify with the organization; the heads of more established Jewish groups say that in most cases, people who care are not close to the left-leaning goals of the J Street Project.

During its formative stage, the heads of the J Street Project were reluctant to show publicly their opposition to the strongest and most established Jewish lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). But in yesterday's conversation, this was made officially clear. "I'm not with AIPAC; I do not support AIPAC," Kovner said. The new organization will try to erode AIPAC's strength and restrain what they see as its identification with the American and the Israeli right.

It will not be easy with a budget of $1.5 million now being discussed, not when AIPAC has $100 million in its coffers. J Street Project's people assume that the silent majority of American Jews are on their side. But AIPAC has more than 100,000 registered supporters in almost 20 branches across the U.S.

The heads of the J Street Project hope to ride the new wave of political fund-raising - of which the Obama campaign serves as a model - getting a large number of small donors to strengthen the organization far beyond what appears likely at the outset.

The debate over the need for and the significance of the J Street Project is over what makes up a "pro-Israeli" position. It is not a new debate, but in recent months the election campaign has brought it once more to the fore. Solomont says that in recent years, a pro-Israeli position has been defined by "neocons, right-of-center Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals," and the J Street Project's other leaders agree with him.

Which candidates qualify for their support? The Project is vague on this point, but the people heading it will not support those who "impose impossible conditions on assisting Palestinians." So let the new debate begin: what defines an "impossible" condition.


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