View From America: Making sense of the 'J Street' jive

A new DC Jewish lobby wants to undermine AIPAC for the sake of non-existent Palestinian moderates.

tobin 88 (photo credit:)
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
It is not exactly a secret that in some quarters, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, is seen as a vast, powerful organization that has run roughshod over Capitol Hill and Imposed a pro-Israel slant on American foreign policy. For those who have been asleep for the past couple of years, that is, more or less, the thesis of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby, a book that has propelled those two otherwise respected but obscure scholars into stars of the left-wing academic speech-making circuit. This was the same line taken by former president Jimmy Carter in his 2006 Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which similarly libeled American Jews and sought to delegitimize American supporters of the Jewish state. Of course, both books are bunk. The reason why the overwhelming majority of Americans back Israel has little to do with AIPAC's lobbying prowess and everything to do with the fact that most of us rightly see Israel as a democratic ally with Western values, assailed by Arab and Muslim authoritarians and Islamists. Oh, yes, then there is the small detail that a huge slice of the US electorate believe that their Christian faith makes it imperative that they support Israel. But that said, AIPAC has done a pretty good job rallying this natural goodwill for Israel, and turning it into votes for measures that buck up the alliance between Jerusalem and Washington. INDEED, IT has been doing this job for so long that it's getting hard for a lot of us to remember that once upon a time, support for Zionism was once very effectively countered by State Department Arabists and oil-industry advocates. And despite the fact that anti-Israel members of Congress are a minority these days, foes of the Jewish state still make themselves heard with ease in Washington and in the academy. They are, after all, funded by a source that actually dwarfs AIPAC's American Jewish donors: the Saudis and the Persian Gulf states. But not all of AIPAC's critics are avowed anti-Zionists. For some American Jews, AIPAC's success in mobilizing a broad bipartisan coalition in favor of the alliance is somehow troubling. For self-proclaimed "doves," AIPAC has become part of what they see as an American-Jewish-made obstacle to peace. Some on the Jewish left are now seeking to, in the words of a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report on the subject, "play tough" with AIPAC via the creation of an organization calling itself J Street in a takeoff on the fact that many DC lobbyists work on the city's K Street. J Street's appeal seems to center on the notion that members of Congress are under the misapprehension that the alleged right-wing slant of AIPAC is not representative of the views of most American Jews who are, according to J Street's backers, doves like them. They want to help promote American support for Palestinian and other Arab "moderates." J Street's goal will be to puncture AIPAC's aura of power and make it clear that the "pro-peace" lobby is the true voice of American Jewry, as well as being more genuinely supportive of the interests of Israel. It is a free country, and J Street has every right to use the reported $1.5 million raised on its behalf to say anything it wants to Congress or anyone else. But the group's premise is flawed in several respects. THE FIRST is the notion that Jewish criticisms of Israel are being suppressed in this country. In promoting these "dovish" views, they are, after all, hardly alone. Other groups, including the influential Israel Policy Forum, already provide a forum for the "peace now" crowd. Nor are such views absent from the American media, which are flooded with abuse of Israel and where defenses of Jewish rights in the conflict, as well as the state's measures of self-defense, are often lacking. Moreover, the notion that AIPAC is a creature of Israel's Likudnik right is another falsehood. AIPAC, itself the creation of a broad coalition of groups, has always reflexively supported the point of view of all Israeli governments, including the ones that promoted the Oslo peace accords and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Throughout the entire period of Oslo-inspired peace euphoria, as well as during the lead-up to the pullout from Gaza, AIPAC's policies were a source of great frustration to right-wingers, who, at times, themselves sought to outflank the lobby. More importantly, the notion underlying the whole initiative is based on belief in a creature as mythical as the unicorn: Palestinian peaceniks. The current situation, in which the Islamists of Hamas clearly command the support of the majority of Palestinians, while being physically in control of Gaza, is deplorable. But it is a fact. Diplomatic charlatans, such as the aforementioned Jimmy Carter, may tirelessly promote, as he did just this week, the idea that Hamas wants peace but no one - not even the Palestinians - believe him. Its goal is not a secret: the destruction of the Jewish state and not merely its withdrawal behind the 1949 armistice lines. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority - the body that Israel's government and the Bush administration claim is "moderate" - is powerless to make peace, even if they really want it. But given the role that the P.A., and its Fatah and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade components, play in fomenting hate and terror against Jews and Israel, faith in their good intentions requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. MORE TO the point, in the aftermath of the crackup of Oslo, the second intifada and the rise of Hamas, the whole idea of American Jewry, as well as Israeli voters being split along "right" and "left" fault lines about peace, is an outdated concept. The vast majority of both Israelis and American Jews no longer support the idea of holding onto most of the territories. But the concept that more Israeli concessions (on top of the enormous sacrifices in terms of land and blood already made by Israel in the name of peace) will transform the Palestinians into peace partners is discredited. The majority of Israelis would gladly make a land for peace deal. But they now understand that there is currently no one to make it with. That's a tough pill for many of us to swallow. For those who prefer to focus on false notions of Israeli intransigence, rather than the actual record of the last 15 years of failed attempts at peacemaking, J Street will provide an outlet. In the coming months, J Street will probably use whatever influence it can muster to undermine the pro-Israel community's continued attempts to ask Congress and the White House to hold both Hamas and Fatah accountable for their support of terror and hate education for Palestinian kids. They'll probably fail. But that they will do so in the name of peace won't make their position any less foolish, as well as irresponsible. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent.com.