Aim of 'J-Street Project' is to counteract AIPAC lobbying on Capitol Hill.
While the structure of the new group is still in flux, sources say it is expected to raise money for congressional candidates who advocate a stronger U.S. role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
by James D. Besser
Dubbed the J-Street Project "K Street" has become a cipher for Washington's lobbying establishment and "J Street," missing from Washington's downtown grid, has become a local "in" joke the new project kicks off with a hush-hush fundraiser next Monday hosted by former Clinton administration official Jeremy Ben Ami and Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. The group will be publicly launched around the middle of April; organizers said they will not speak publicly about the group until then.
"For too long, the loudest American voices in political and policy debates have been those on the far right often Republican neoconservatives or extreme Christian Zionists," according to the invitation. "J Street aims to change that. We are the first and only lobby and PAC (political action committee) dedicated to ensuring Israel's security, changing the direction of American policy in the Middle East and opening up American political debate about Israel and the Middle East."
While sources say the structure and initial goals of the new group are still in flux, it is expected to raise money for congressional candidates who advocate a stronger U.S. leadership role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and multilateral solutions to the region's problems.
The group will be headed by Ben-Ami, who served as deputy domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and later as a media consultant. Ben-Ami has worked with several Jewish peace groups, including the Center for Middle East Peace and the Geneva Initiative-North America.
The J-Street board of advisers includes a number of lay and professional leaders of Americans for Peace Now (APN), including CEO Debra DeLee, as well as Marcia Freedman, founder and former president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom.
Several activists with ties to Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama are on the panel, as well. They include Robert Malley, whose involvement in Obama's broad foreign policy advisory team has generated criticism from Republicans and some pro-Israel groups, and Alan Solomont, a top Obama fundraiser and major player in Democratic politics.
Also on board: David Kimche, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and a member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) another pro-peace process group that was connected with last year's efforts but which, several source say, is not directly involved in the current project.
Several activists associated with the project say the goal is to offer lawmakers an alternative perspective that they say is closer to the consensus positions of American Jews than that offered by major pro-Israel groups like AIPAC, which they say have not supported aggressive U.S. peacemaking in the region.
"I signed on because I think this is a worthwhile endeavor," said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "I'm very sympathetic with the core principles: to provide a voice in favor of an active U.S. role in promoting negotiations and peacemaking, and a somewhat more balanced approach to the parties than some other Jewish organizations."
Like several other supporters of the new project, Lewis stressed that J-Street is "not meant as an alternative to AIPAC, or anything on that scale. But I see it as a useful addition to the debate; it may offer more energetic efforts in terms of lobbying on the Hill, where a lot of education has to be done."
He said the new group will be more "politically purposeful" than IPF or other pro-peace process groups.
Turf issues among the various pro-peace process groups have slowed the creation of the new organization, according to several activists involved in discussions about the new group, but they expressed the view that Ben-Ami has largely finessed that by creating a group that will serve to broaden political activism by peace process advocates without stepping on the feet of individual groups that have their own lobbying operations and agendas.
"It will be separate from the dovish organizations and not competitive with them," said a source familiar with the discussions that created the new group. "The goal is to add another, more political layer to support for peace negotiations."
Organizers refuse to talk to the media until the official launch, but activists close to the process say it will focus initially on political fundraising aimed at helping incumbents and candidates who support a more active U.S. peacemaking role.
The project is the result of a lengthy process to "figure out what to do to help organizations that are dovish within the American Zionist fold," said a knowledgeable source. "It is very ambitious, but it is starting modestly."
This source said an initial goal was to raise $1.5 million presumably with the intention of having an impact in the current election cycle.
Planners remain secretive in large part to avoid a repetition of last year's controversy. Early reports about an AIPAC competitor that would amalgamate the efforts of the major pro-peace process groups, with possible funding by mega-philanthropist and progressive activist George Soros, produced a storm of unwanted publicity and scared off some potential participants.
In fact, Soros had never committed to the original project, and the current iteration includes no Soros involvement, according to several players.
New Group Faces Big Obstacles
The idea of creating an alternative lobbying voice on Mideast issues goes back at least 20 years.
In 1988, leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League signed a letter criticizing AIPAC as not reflecting the consensus views of the Jewish community on Mideast peace issues. In the privately circulated letter, the groups specifically objected to AIPAC's efforts to deny Yasir Arafat a visa allowing him to address the United Nations.
But that initiative went nowhere. AIPAC established closer working ties to the other major Jewish organizations and during the Oslo years it was the Jewish left that argued AIPAC was out of step because of what activists charged was lukewarm support for the peace process, a political focus that emphasized building political opposition to the Palestinians and resistance to any U.S. pressure on Israel.
AIPAC's preeminence on Capitol Hill and the vital role played by networks of pro-Israel campaign givers who take cues from the lobby group "misleads a lot of people into thinking there is only one 'Jewish' position on the Middle East," said University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald. "So it makes sense for those who don't like that particular voice to do something more systematic than just talk about it. And the theory is that dollars are the currency of doing that."
But the new group faces big obstacles, he said, including a limited fundraising pool and the view by many community leaders that "Jews must present a united front" on Israel-related matters to government bodies.
It also faces a political challenge because "AIPAC has been recognized by non-Jewish politicians as the voice of the Jewish community," he said. An alternative voice "may be hard to sell to non-Jewish politicians who don't want to be tarred as anti-Israel."
Jews on the left, he said, are less likely to put Israel-related politics at the top of their list of giving priorities something AIPAC supporters and supports of pro-Israel political action committees have traditionally done.
And the new group will face aggressive attacks from the Jewish right.
"I'm a realist; these people will get hammered and accused of being anti-Israel," Wald said. "A lot will have to do with the way they actually frame their arguments."
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said the new group is part of a broader trend: the effort by groups with different Mideast perspectives to be heard despite the dominance of a handful of big groups like AIPAC.
"The most important point here is that there are significant portions of the Jewish community that feel dissatisfied with the way their views are being represented," Kahn said. "The same is true on the other side, with the Orthodox Union and its decision to challenge the policies of the Israeli government. It's the outgrowth of the growing awareness that there is legitimacy to differences in advocacy."
The idea has less to do with creating "alternate" AIPACs, some say, than ending the view in the political world that the Jewish community speaks as one on controversial Mideast policy issues.
Editor at Large Larry Cohler-Esses contributed to this report.
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