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US Jewish Lobby Challenged by 'Pro-Peace' Rival

Leonard Doyle in Washington

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April 18, 2009

For the past 25 years, the influential and hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) has helped thwart every US presidential effort to deliver Middle East peace on terms it was unhappy with. The lobby’s legendary stranglehold over US foreign policy is now receding with the rise of J Street, which describes itself as the “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, said: “We want to give a voice to the majority of the American Jewish community that is liberal and open and isn’t supportive of settlements, opposed the Iraq war and isn’t keen on a war with Iran.”

J Street recently released a YouTube video, complete with threatening sound effects, which condemned the “incendiary and racist” campaigning tactics of Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Even activists were stunned by the boldness of the attack.

It argues that despite the liberal sympathies of most Jewish Americans, a narrow group of Right-wingers have skewed the debate over Israel in the US. While American Jews will reflexively support Israel if they feel the security of the state is threatened by an enemy like Iran, a majority is also in favour of a “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians and favours diplomacy over military force. More than 78 per cent of American Jews supported Mr Obama in November’s US election.

In the past, however, many senators, congressmen and presidential candidates who favour an end to settlements and certain blueprints for a negotiated two-state solution have been afraid to incur the wrath of Aipac.

J Street’s rise to prominence comes as the Obma administration is preparing to lock horns with Israel’s new hardline government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to meet the US president in Washington next month.

The meeting may also prove to be the first time in decades that a US president engages in a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that the settlement activity - including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions - does to the peacemaking process.

Thanks to J Street’s video, the mood in the US towards Mr Lieberman is now so hostile that he may not even come to Washington.

J Street, which marked its first anniversary last week, was founded with the specific aim of ending Aipac’s influence over US foreign policy. J Street alleges that Aipac has needlessly prolonged the Middle East conflict and its activities are not in the best interests of either Israel or America. Aipac which rarely seeks publicity, declined to discuss J Street or its aims with the Sunday Telegraph.

Initially staffed by just three three people and run on a shoestring budget, J Street’s name is a reference to their Jewish roots and to Washington’s nearby K Street, the epicentre of America’s vast political lobbying industry and home of Aipac.

It started out modestly hoping to raise about $50,000 from pro-peace American Jews, which they intended to channel to a handful of congressional candidates who were willing to directly challenge Israel’s policies and withstand pressure from Aipac. Instead, they managed to raise about $600,000, securing victory for dozens of Democrats and a few Republicans in the 2008 elections. J Street claims that 33 of the 41 candidates it backed won their seats.

Alone among Jewish groups, J Street sharply criticised Israel’s recent military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

“While there is nothing 'right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ’right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them,” the organisation told its members.

In twelve months J Street has mushroomed, becoming Washington’s leading pro-Israel political action committee. Its success has surprised founding members like Joel Rubin, who expected Aipac to act more aggressively to try to snuff out the new organisation, perhaps by leaning on its major donors. “They missed an opportunity and it is too late now,” he said.

Using sophisticated online organising techniques, fundraising and YouTube attack videos - as Mr Obama did in his run for the White House - the peace lobby has managed to outmanoeuvre the better funded Aipac.

It attracted more than 100 co-sponsors in Congress for a resolution welcoming Mr Obama’s appointment of the former Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. Aipac has remained conspicuously silent about Mr Mitchell’s appointment.

“The notion that 100 members of Congress are willing to sign on is a real accomplishment,” said Mr Ben-Ami. “We’re not changing the world, but it’s a signal that things are shifting.”

J Street’s budget is expected to double to $3 million in its second year, and like the Obama election campaign it is now focused on recruiting on US college campuses.

Few expect J Street to rival Aipac’s $80 million purse and vast influence among US politicians and policymakers soon, however.

Jon Alterman, who runs the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Aipac has found a way over a half-century to tremendously energise people about their mission.

“Can J Street build a donor base who believe that it is something that is vital in the way that Aipac does? I don’t know if that’s possible.”

Not all American liberal Jewish leaders are enthusiastic about J Street. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, condemned its position on the Gaza invasion as “morally deficient”, “appallingly naive” and “out of touch” with mainstream Jewish opinion.