US Jews fear new group joining the fray

Emergency Committee for Israel plans campaign against ‘Israel critics.'

Clinton smiles at AIPAC 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Clinton smiles at AIPAC 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – Several American Jewish officials are expressing concern that a new pro-Israel organization could further polarize the debate over Israel at a sensitive time in US-Israel relations.
The group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, plans to start running TV ads next week against Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak as part of its critique of the Obama administration and certain politicians they deem harmful to Israel.
RELATED:'Israel's security strengthens US'Diaspora Affairs: J Street 1 : Ayalon 0Though the group hasn’t revealed the names of other candidates it will be targeting ahead of the November midterm elections, the organization’s board is headed by neoconservative thinker William Kristol and evangelical political activist Gary Bauer, and isn’t expected to back Democrats during the election cycle.
“I think it will have an effect on the political debate. That’s troubling in the sense that what we’ve always striven to do is make sure that support for Israel in the United States is a bipartisan effort,” said Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“To the extent that this fractures it and makes it a politicized issue is troubling,” he continued, though he stressed that he supported the right of any group to speak on Israel and welcomed pro-Israel activism.
“To the extent that this is perceived as a partisan effort [it’s] a concern,” said another Jewish official at a mainstream organization who asked not to be named. “We must not allow the debate on the US-Israel relationship to devolve into a partisan division.”
Emergency Committee executive director Noah Pollak said that the organization was not partisan and wouldn’t want Israel to be a party-line issue, even though he thought that given the group’s conservative leadership it was “unlikely” the group would back a Democratic candidate this year.
“This is not a Republican group but a pro-Israel group.
We welcome all supporters of Israel,” he emphasized, adding that he has received a “phenomenal” response from a wide range of people excited about the organization’s debut.
But Pollak noted that, in contrast to Jewish groups that prefer to work out differences with the administration behind the scenes, “We don’t have to pull any punches. We can go after people as hard as we want.”
Mainstream Jewish organizations have mostly liked to discuss problems behind the scenes, with powerful lobbies such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee going so far as to call for the US and Israel to “work closely and privately” with each other after the Obama administration publicly berated Israel for east Jerusalem housing construction in March. The lobby then backed a letter making the same point by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC and current head of Washington PAC, agreed that partisanship on Israel is unfortunate, but argued that vocal pushback from both parties is a positive response.
“It’s good to have strong voices on either side,” he said, defending the Emergency Committee’s approach.
“I definitely think it will be helpful... in bringing to light some of the policies of the administration that could be harmful to both Israeli and American interests in the Middle East,” he added.
Amitay labeled Sestak, who served as a representative before winning the Senate primary, as having “one of the worst records on Israel.”
David Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council challenged that characterization, however, saying that Sestak had a “strong, long-term history” on Israel. Harris also delivered a blistering attack on the new organization, charging that “it can only serve to make support for Israel a more partisan issue, and that’s extremely dangerous.”
The Emergency Committee’s Sestak ad, set to be released on CNN and FoxNews next week, blasts Sestak for signing a letter criticizing Israel’s Gaza blockade while not signing an AIPAC-supported letter defending Israel, as well as participating in a Council on American Islamic Relations event.
Another Jewish leader speaking on condition of anonymity voiced concern about the approach of the Emergency Committee, but fingered the progressive J Street lobby and PAC as being responsible for heightening the partisan nature of the Israel debate.
The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby formed some two years ago and aims to donate more than $1 million to candidates this cycle.
“It’s a natural outgrowth of J Street, because when J Street has started to create political challenges for those who aren’t particularly supportive of Israel, it’s natural that others will try to create political opportunities for those who are supportive of Israel,” the Washington-based organizational official said.
J Street has supported Sestak with over $75,000 distributed to his campaign so far.
“JStreetPAC is proud to support Congressman Joe Sestak, who has been a stalwart supporter of Israel,” said J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. “The choice in Pennsylvania is clear: a candidate from the far right who has opposed aid to Israel and is supported by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, or a former naval commander who supports Israel and whose values line up with the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans.”
Regardless of Sestak’s views, the Jewish official expressed dismay at the new political activism on Israel, saying, “I’d rather that neither of them exist, and we could just have the AIPAC model. I like bipartisanship.”