US Senator Tim Kaine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – For seven and a half years, the policy advocates of J Street have felt blessed.
Lobbying for diplomatic flexibility with Iran and for a tougher US line against Israel’s settlement activity, the liberal Jewish-American group has been repeatedly bolstered by a president who, prior to taking office, had a short track record on which to base support.
How President-elect Barack Obama would shape US foreign policy toward Israel was largely unknown, and his decision to tap Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as vice president gave few clues.
Biden, a longtime Foreign Relations Committee veteran who famously called for the dissolution of Iraq, was a longtime friend of the US Jewish community. But it was going to be the president, and not his No. 2, dictating policy – and indeed, Biden has become a critical liaison between the administration and Jewish groups, often tasked with speaking engagements at galas and Hanukkah party appearances, serving more as an explainer of the president’s decisions on Israel and Iran than as a shaping hand.
The Obama administration ultimately crafted an Israel doctrine largely in sync with the raison d’etre of J Street.
But if that were a result of luck, J Street this time around has cultivated an advocate for their cause on the Democratic ticket in Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
Tapped as Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Kaine “is definitely someone who has that worldview, and is moving up with that worldview that we support,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, said in a phone call on Monday. “He is someone who on his own has come to these positions – not in line with the more hawkish elements of the foreign policy community, or the more hawkish elements of the Jewish community.”
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J Street fully endorsed and has actively fund-raised for Kaine, who has not held back criticism of the Israeli government on the full range of contentious, high-profile issues that have aggravated the US-Israel relationship in recent years.
Kaine supported the position of Obama’s negotiating team with Iran early in the process – back in 2014 – when an interim agreement effectively ceded Israel’s major “non-negotiables.”
“Their position is no, no, no,” Kaine said at the time after holding meetings in Israel on Jerusalem’s stance on the Iran talks: “No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program.
“They understand this is a negotiation,” he continued, and “at the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution – without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon.”
Israel now argues that its first two “no’s” were fully conceded in the final nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It further argues that, in its sunset years, the deal provides Iran with a legitimate excuse to grow its nuclear infrastructure to an industrial scale – providing Tehran with easy ability to produce weapons-grade material on short notice.
Especially if Iran chooses not to cheat on the deal throughout the first half of the deal’s lifespan, the policies of the next president– and the advice of the next vice president– will dictate how those sunset years are managed.
Ben-Ami believes that the rise of Kaine, who has long leaned toward J Street’s positions, is becoming the norm among congressional Democrats, who sought cover in the organization’s tent during a bruising battle over Iran last year between the White House and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“We are now, by and large, an early and significant supporter for the new, serious candidates running for federal office at the House and Senate level in the Democratic Party,” Ben-Ami said. “In every single major contested Senate race, we have that type of relationship.
“I think Kaine is a part of that,” Ben-Ami continued, “and in the next decade or two, the type of foreign policy approach that President Obama has brought is likely to be the dominant approach in the Democratic Party. We’re very enthusiastic about him."
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