New US lobby group aims as pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC

'J Street' seeks to push "pro-Israel, pro-peace" agenda in Washington.

j street 224.88 (photo credit: Screenshot)
j street 224.88
(photo credit: Screenshot)
A group of 100 former US officials, Jewish activists and academics launched a new lobby and Political Action Committee Tuesday to push a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" agenda in Washington, charging that the major Israel-oriented lobbies were out of step with American Jews. Organizers said that the effort, called J Street, will provide money in political races and lobby for policies that seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that press for active diplomatic American engagement in the region and that downgrade the role of military confrontation. "For too long, the loudest 'pro-Israel' voices in this country have been those on the far Right," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton White House official who is the PAC's executive director. "The term 'pro-Israel' has been hijacked by those who hold views that a majority of Americans - Jews and non-Jews alike - oppose, whether supporting the war in Iraq, beating the drums for war with Iran or putting obstacles in the path to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." In a conference call with the media to announce the new organization, Ben-Ami said the organization would push its views even if they sometimes contrasted with those of the Israeli government or US administration. For instance, J Street thinks "the United States should have in its diplomatic toolbox the option of direct high-level negotiations with Iran to address all issues of mutual concern" and that "the United States must withdraw responsibly from Iraq," according to its Web site, though those views aren't in line with Israel's positions. But the PAC, whose name is a play on "K Street," a term used to refer to Washington's locus of lobbying firms, also has a list of Israeli supporters who include Dalia Rabin, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg and former IDF chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. In addition to the money the PAC will give to candidates (a list of endorsements is expected in early June), its members said it would be important for all politicians to understand that there were a variety of perspectives on what's best for Israel and to feel comfortable being open about the views they hold. Alan Solomont, a key member of J Street's 100-member advisory council and a major Democratic player who is one of Barack Obama's leading fundraisers, said people who back candidates need to speak up about their dovish positions on Israel. "We have been somewhat silent about this issue," he said. Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, welcomed the formation of the new lobbying group. "We're thrilled that the pro-Israel, pro-peace community in Washington has a political arm, a PAC, to complement our work," said Nir, who noted that the organization would be able to make political contributions that APN couldn't because of its non-profit status. "J Street adds an important component to the efforts that APN makes to demonstrate to America that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-peace." But some leaders in the Jewish community take issue with the idea that American Jewry's views aren't being accurately reflected by the pro-Israel establishment. "AIPAC enjoys broad-based support in all segments of the community," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "If you look at the tens of thousands of people who belong to AIPAC, they're representing them." There is also a question of how much influence J Street will have. The group has been reported to have an annual budget of $1.5 million, a small share of the approximately $50 million AIPAC spends. AIPAC declined to comment for this story. However, former AIPAC executive director Morrie Amitay said that with 30 other pro-Israel PACs already roaming Capitol Hill, including his own Washington PAC, one new group would have limited impact. "The bottom line is that it really doesn't amount to much at all. It'll barely make a ripple in Congress," he said. "Good luck to them. I don't think they'll get very far."