Shalom to a new pro-Israel lobby

An alternative to AIPAC, the new group 'J Street" could help US leaders be more even-handed.

How's this for a roster of speakers? Three presidential candidates, the top leaders of Congress, and Israel's premier. Last week, they all spoke before a pro-Israel group, one of Washington's most influential lobbies.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is right up there with the gun lobby in terms of political power. But while the National Rifle Association faces tough – if underdog – competitors, AIPAC has long stood as the unchallenged king of the Hill.

This is not healthy for the political discourse that shapes US policy. Last fall, two professors from Chicago and Harvard universities helped explain why. In a controversial book, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued that the US is overly influenced by a loose alignment of groups that includes neoconservatives, many conservative, evangelical Christians, and AIPAC, which represents the views of many American Jews largely loyal to Israel's right-wing.

Washington's near adherence to the lobby's themes – often unconditional support for Israel, reluctance to push Israel hard on behalf of the Palestinians, and an overly confrontational stance toward Israel's adversaries – works against US interests, the authors say.

It inspires Islamist terrorism, undermines the US as an honest broker, and complicates diplomatic relations. One thing that would help, the book suggested, is an additional lobby, one that can open up the debate.

Enter "J Street," a new lobby which describes itself as pro-Israel. It's directed by Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton official whose father fought alongside Menachem Begin for Israel's independence.

J Street (a play on the K Street address of many lobbyists), seeks a less hard-line US policy in the Middle East and wants to create an environment in which politicians can confidently discuss such a change without fear of political punishment or being labeled anti-Semitic.

Several US groups share J Street's views but they don't have much political muscle. J Street wants to build clout by using the Internet to raise money from small donors, and to contribute to congressional campaigns.

Next week, it will endorse several candidates who support a major US push for a negotiated, two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis. J Street also favors dialogue with Israel's enemies, including Hamas and Iran; an Israeli-Syrian peace deal; and US withdrawal from Iraq.

But it faces an uphill climb. AIPAC has an annual operating budget of $60 million. J Street's first-year budget is $1.5 million. J Street says it speaks for a silent majority of American Jewish voters – overwhelmingly Democrats – who favor a more balanced approach to the Middle East peace process. But on the specific question of making peace with a "Hamas-led Palestinian government," three-quarters of them don't believe it's possible.

Neither is the bipartisan AIPAC as conservative as it is made out to be. It supported the Oslo accords, for instance. And at the moment, Washington is actually at odds with Israel over its talks with Syria.

America must remain a strong friend to Israel – because it's a democracy, because it faces a threat, because of the history of Jews. But friends need not always agree, and in allowing for that debate, J Street can play a useful role.

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