Vying for Obama's Ear (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. American Jewish organizations are jockeying for access to and influence in the new Obama Administration Even before the Gaza war, which began on December 27th, sharpened the language and divisions within the North American Jewish community, American Jewish organizations have been preparing themselves for Barack Obama's new administration. Groups as diverse as the stalwart American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the upstart J Street, and the staid Israel Policy Forum (IPF) have been adjusting their approach towards and jockeying for position with the new administration. As Obama takes office, access is the key to influence. What is at stake is the ability to persuade or pressure the administration with regard to policy-making on domestic issues as well as the Middle East. While the American Jewish community still largely agrees on domestic issues with regard to Israel, existing divisions have visibly deepened over the past few years with the formation of more liberal peace-leaning groups such as Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and J Street. Along with Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum, these groups have tried to represent a different voice in the Jewish community than that of the more traditional conservative organizations, such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) or AIPAC. The war in Gaza has merely provided the fuel for further escalation of the tensions and differences between the groups. On December 18th, Obama's transition team held a meeting with more than two dozen American Jewish organizations, representing a broad range of perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Bush Administration, liberal groups like Brit Tzedek and the IPF were excluded from similar meetings. IPF didn't "set foot in the White House during the Bush Administration," IPF's M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis, tells The Report. According to one participant, the Middle East viewpoints articulated at the meeting fell into three categories: the pro-peace, pro-Israel camp, which believes in resolving the conflict through a negotiated settlement, including J Street, APN, IPF and Brit Tzedek; the centrists who also believe in a two-state solution but are much harder on the Palestinians than on the Israelis, such as AIPAC and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and those who completely oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, such as the ZOA. Those falling into the first camp drew hope from the December meeting that the Obama Administration will be more open to hearing and considering their viewpoints than was the Bush Administration. Indeed, says Alan Solow, a longtime supporter of Obama and the new chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that represents some 50 national organizations, "Obama will welcome a wide range of input from a variety of community representatives." Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), acknowledges that the Obama Administration may reach out to different people in the Jewish community than did the Bush White House. Some of that difference may be attributed simply to the fact that the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, are in power. "With a Democratic Administration," says Foxman, who has worked with American Jewish organizations for 40 years and with numerous administrations, "since a lot of Jews are politically involved [in the Democratic Party], there's less of a necessity to interact with the organized Jewish community" because democratic leaders have more individual relationships within the community. IPF's Rosenberg says his group would have had no contacts with a McCain Administration because, like the Bush Administration, it would not have been open to hearing their positions. " We've been in a holding pattern for the last eight years," waiting for a Democratic Administration," he says. "With Obama in office, we're in really good, We know the people [in the administration]. We've worked with them on Capitol Hill." Rosenberg predicts that all the more dovish groups are well-positioned for the Obama Administration while the more right-wing American Jewish groups, such as the ZOA "will have no access.... They viciously attacked Obama" during the race for the White House. Yet, contrary to Rosenberg's contentions, Morton Klein, ZOA president, was included in the December 18 meeting. Klein calls his group "center right," believing that the establishment of a Palestinian state is "premature." Klein tells The Report that in early January the ZOA presented a position paper on the Middle East to the transition team, as suggested by Dan Shapiro, former U.S. Senate staffer and Obama's campaign Jewish outreach head and transition team member, who is reportedly slated for a senior position in the new administration. "The Obama team claim they will look at it, but you never know," Klein says, implying that Obama's administration may be open only to more left-wing groups. Few question that the dynamics in Washington, D.C., and thus throughout the American Jewish community, have changed dramatically. AIPAC has long been considered the most influential Jewish - some say right-of-center - voice about Israel to both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. In fact, IPF was created in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accord, initiated by the Labor-led Rabin government, and the organization was meant to serve as a counterweight to what Rabin viewed as the more conservative AIPAC. Indeed, one might say that the recent election cycle was a form of coming-out party for some of the left-wing organizations. While there has always been a seesawing of influence among Jewish organizations with the changing U.S. administrations, many believe the balance has now tilted towards the left-leaning groups. In arguing that they best represent the American Jewish community, groups such as Brit Tzedek quote surveys that show 87 percent of the community supports a negotiated, two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in contrast to more conservative or hawkish positions adopted by AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. But Solow, the new Conference chair, says that it would be a mistake to fight over who can be more influential with the U.S. government. "My goal as chair is to find the commonalities among pro-Israel organizations to help us speak with as strong a voice as possible. I hope that the Conference can be a place for the exchange of ideas. The American Jewish community must remember what our core agreements are, like wanting a secure Israel, and they should emphasize their commonalities while respecting their differences." J Street was launched in April as the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, because it wanted respect for the left-wing voice. "There has not been enough support for other viewpoints. I think the goal of J Street is to provide and create political space so Congress and the new Administration have a greater latitude to decide the best policies that are in the interest of the U.S. and Israel. We want to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the American Jewish community," says Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami. J Street has differentiated itself from like-minded Jewish organizations, such as Brit Tzedek or APN, by establishing itself as a 501(c) 4, allowing it to lobby and raise money for candidates; it has thus added a new dimension to the American Jewish political scene. (Although its initials often cause confusion, AIPAC is not a political action group and does not raise money to endorse candidates.) In the recent Congressional elections, J Street raised funds and endorsed several candidates - something no other Jewish organization openly does. Raising $578,000 for support, J Street successfully helped 33 of 41 endorsed candidates win Congressional seats. Ben-Ami argues that he's not "into the organizational game." He contends that his organization, now with a mailing list of nearly 100,000, was not created to compete with AIPAC. "What's most important is that we all have access, not who has more influence." The war in Gaza provided J street with its first opportunity since its inception to display its growing clout - and its first real challenge. Traditionally when Israel has been at war, the American Jewish community shows unabashed support. Local federations around the United States sponsor flag-waving pro-Israel rallies and launch emergency campaigns to financially support Israel in "its time of need." AIPAC has helped Congress write ringing pro-Israel resolutions. Rejecting what they view as the knee-jerk solidarity of many of the more conservative Jewish groups, J Street, IPF, APN and Brit Tzedek all issued statements calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Perhaps feeling more emboldened by an Obama presidency and a strongly Democratic legislature, these groups also took their battle to Congress. In contrast to AIPAC's traditional role of initiating non-binding resolutions, they launched campaigns for supporters to call their Congressional representatives to write a "more nuanced" resolution, including mention of the plight of Palestinians living in Gaza and support for a negotiated, two-state settlement to the conflict. In its first e-mail alert, only one day after the war began, J Street called for signatures to a petition that "demanded an immediate and strong U.S.-led diplomatic effort to reinstate a meaningful cease-fire, ending the violence, including the rockets aimed at Israel and lifting the blockade of Gaza." Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.