J Street faces battle in Congress

Group seeks signatories for letter supporting Obama's policies

congress 298 (photo credit: )
congress 298
(photo credit: )
WASHINGTON – Although J Street opened its 25th field office within the past three months on Thursday – a sign of its growing activist base – its founder acknowledged that the lobby still faces an uphill battle pushing its agenda in the halls of Congress.
“It is unbelievably difficult to get members of Congress to sign on,” J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami said of efforts to recruit support for a new J Street-backed letter circulating on Capitol Hill.
The letter, co-sponsored by Democrats Bill Delahunt (MA), Ron Kind (WI), David Price (NC) and Vic Snyder (AR), urges US President Barack Obama “to continue your strong efforts to bring US leadership to bear in moving the parties toward a negotiated two-state solution.” It also cites controversial comments by US Gen. David Petraeus to make the case that “continued lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatens the security interests of both countries.”
But, Ben-Ami said, the challenge is one J Street is poised to surmount.
“Never before has there been a lobby that says, ‘Yes, you must sign this letter,’” he declared. “One by one, 10 by 10, dozen by dozen, members of Congress are going to sign that letter.”
Ben-Ami was speaking at the launch of J Street’s newest field office, in Washington, DC.
He also noted that one of the crucial lessons the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby has learned in the group’s two years of existence is the importance of demonstrating support for Israel in order to have traction among American Jews.
“It is so important to establish how clearly, how deeply we care about Israel,” said Ben-Ami when asked about the biggest lessons he’s learned since organization debuted in April 2008.
The first message on Israel the group conveys needs to be that “this is a homeland that has every right to exist,” he stressed.
The concerns about delegitimization of Israel are warranted, Ben-Ami pointed out, because of the real claims that it has no right to exist, and ongoing anti-Semitism in the country and around the world.
“I think the toughest challenge is getting beyond that fear,” he said of the organization’s efforts to draw in more Jewish supporters.
Though some 150,000 supporters have now joined the J Street list, according to Ben-Ami, the group has also faced a massive backlash from some quarters of the Jewish community that have attacked the progressive group’s pro-Israel credentials.
As opposed to many organizations which call themselves pro-Israel, J Street has taken several stances critical of the government of the Jewish state and has been willing to endorse pressure on the country to move it toward peace negotiations.
The lobby, which has a partner Political Action Committee, has beenloudly opposed to settlement activity, elements of Israel’s militaryoperations in Gaza and other actions it sees as harmful to peaceefforts.
It has also received backing from certain individuals and groupscalling for a one-state solution and supporting boycotts of Israel,though J Street rejects those positions.
But over the past several months, Israeli officials have said thatthey’ve observed something of a moderation in J Street’s policies topositions they are more comfortable with – most significantly areversal of its opposition to sanctions on Teheran in favor ofCongressional efforts to bar gasoline imports to Iran.
Moves such as that one cleared the way for Ben-Ami to hold along-sought meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Orenlast month, Israeli sources indicated.