(MintPress) – Brandishing “pro-Israel” credentials has become a hallmark for election in Washington and an important policy position for incumbent politicians seeking the popular support of pro-Israel groups. However, the bevy of groups claiming to be pro-Israel and pro-peace has grown in recent years, reflecting opinions of most Jewish-Americans who support a two-state solution to […]
(MintPress) – Brandishing “pro-Israel” credentials has become a hallmark for election in Washington and an important policy position for incumbent politicians seeking the popular support of pro-Israel groups. However, the bevy of groups claiming to be pro-Israel and pro-peace has grown in recent years, reflecting opinions of most Jewish-Americans who support a two-state solution to the decades old Israel-Palestine conflict.
The lobby that promotes unconditional support for Israel, even when certain Knesset policies violate international law, has been called into question by moderate groups: J Street and Americans for Peace Now, among others. The work of new advocacy groups has changed the conversation on Capitol Hill and and in policy circles by showing that like other U.S. relationships, there can be room for debate, difference and even criticism of Israeli policies antithetical to peace in the region.
AIPAC and the lobby
Following the release of the “Israel Lobby” in 2007, co-authors Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer came under intense scrutiny by critics claiming that the text promotes age old conspiracies about a Jewish cabal controlling government policy.
However, the authors posit, there is no centralized “lobbying” organization as the different groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship have taken different approaches, serving group constituent interests. Nor does pro-Israel advocacy have a strictly Jewish character, as staunch defenders of the Middle Eastern state, like Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United For Israel have mobilized millions of Evangelical Christians in support.
This for years has translated into robust bipartisan support for Israel in the form of military aid, diplomatic support and intelligence sharing. Boasting strong pro-Israel credentials has become a hallmark of re-election in Congress, especially following 1967 in which Israel gained control of the West Bank from Jordan.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) emerged in 1990 to become the largest, most successful pro-Israel group supplementing the work of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and a bevy of other organizations advocating on behalf of the Jewish state.
However, the hardline U.S. support for Israel, even in times when settlement expansion, Palestinian home demolition and land annexation threaten the prospect for peace, has become a minority position, even within the Jewish American community.
According to AIPAC’s website, “Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for direct talks without preconditions with the Palestinian Authority (PA) only to be rejected by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.” While AIPAC supposedly supports a negotiated two-state solution, the organization has not taken a public stance opposing a permanent halt to settlement expansion, a key precondition for peace talks and the foundation for a future two-state solution in keeping with international law.
The positions of AIPAC and similar groups reflects the position of the 6 percent of Jewish-Americans who rank Israel as their most important election issue in a survey conducted earlier this year by the American Jewish Committee. Jewish-Americans, like all voting blocs, have a bevy of issues they are concerned about, including education, the economy and health care.
The most vocal 6 percent of Jewish-Americans, reflecting a more hawkish view of the issues, have long dominated the conversation, supporting congressman who, at times, go so far as to deny the right of Palestinians to a free and independent state.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney believes that the Palestinians are not interested in peace with Israel, promoting an outright rejectionist view, commenting at a May fundraiser in Florida, “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way.”
The Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, has recognized Israel’s right to exist, while renouncing violence and calling for negotiations following a complete settlement freeze.
“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community,” said Newt Gingrich during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination earlier this year.
“All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis. There are not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian. This is Israeli land,” added Congressman Rick Santorum at the 2012 AIPAC conference in Washington.
Dozens of prominent politicians, including the president, attend the annual AIPAC conference to display sufficiently “pro-Israel credentials” for donors and conservative pro-Israel supporters.
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, Pro-Israel interest groups, including AIPAC have made an estimated $56.8 million in individual, group and soft money donations in federal elections since 1990.
Although AIPAC members reflect a range of political opinions on the Israel issue, critics charge that the group has done little to back up the claim that they support a two-state solution to the conflict. Many prominent AIPAC supporters support settlement expansion on the West Bank, some calling for an outright annexation of the territory captured in the 1967 war.
Additionally, there is consistent support for maintaining, or increasing the size of military aid to Israel, which currently stands at $3.1 billion per year, the most robust aid package afforded any U.S. ally.
The positions of the AIPAC and the old guard of Israel advocacy are out of step with majority of American Jews who consider a two-state solution essential to the survival of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.
In fact, a full 78 percent of American Jews support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, according to recent Gallup polling. For some organizations this goal has become an impetus for opening the political space to show that AIPAC and similarly hawkish organizations don’t represent the entire, “pro-Israel Jewish community.”
Additionally, for groups like J Street, organizing the more moderate pro-Israel constituency has helped to show that there is nothing antithetical about being pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-two states.
Changing the conversation
J Street emerged in 2008 to represent the moderate majority within the Jewish-American community; a majority which supports a negotiated two-state settlement to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Polls consistently show that American Jews favor a two-state solution,” said J Street spokesperson Jessica Rosenblum in a recent MintPress statement.
This is reflected in polling conducted by the organization, and other independent studies, showing that the Clinton parameters put forth during the Camp David Accords typically receive 60-70 percent support within Jewish-American constituencies.
The multi-pronged group has emerged as the more moderate alternative to the hardline lobby AIPAC, CUFI, ZOA and others that traditionally form the backbone of the pro-Israel lobby influencing U.S. Middle East policy.
The group, founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami and a cadre of close friends has grown considerably since its inception, now boasts 180,000 members and a $7 million budget.
While much of the group’s advocacy involves direct lobbying on Capitol Hill, to create a pro-Israel, pro-peace message, some believe the group positions simply reflect a gentler face to AIPAC lobbying.
J Street opposed a U.N. statehood bid last year by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. While J Street’s opposition is consistent with ardent support for a negotiated solution not imposed by the international community, the U.S. has historically not played the role of an “even-handed” arbiter in negotiations.
Another somewhat controversial point occurred last year when Peter Beinart, a J Steet supporter and contributor to the Daily Beast, wrote a contentious New York Times op-ed in support of a “Zionist Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel.”
That is, the pundit put forth a vision of boycotting Israeli goods produced in West Bank settlements while supporting positive investment, inside the “Green line,” the internationally recognized 1967 borders of Israel.
The tactic was dismissed by Ben-Ami on the official J Street website. While BDS tactics used to boycott the apartheid regime in South Africa have been adopted by many civil society Palestinian organizations, the reluctance by Jewish organizations calling for boycotts as a means to shift policy may signal a reluctance to directly confront a paralyzed peace process.
The BDS issue
Rebecca Subar, a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace, believes that groups like J Street, while important in creating some political space to move beyond the boilerplate positions of AIPAC, still subverts the interests of Palestinians by calling for negotiations without preconditions.
This, Subar believes, does nothing to change the power dynamic in negotiations, which stands decidedly in Israel’s favor. “We take an international law and human rights based approach to advocating for a just, lasting peace,” said Subar, in a recent MintPress statement.
Jewish Voice For Peace, which Subar describes proudly as a “Jewish organization,” is not considered part of the pro-Israel lobby because the interested parties, Israelis, the Jewish-American community, Palestinians and the Palestinian diaspora, are believed to be equal partners in negotiating and resolving the conflict.
The group does not predetermine the outcome of negotiations, supporting any solution, one state or two, that is mutually agreed upon and results in a just, lasting peace among the interested parties.
Boasting 100,000 members, the group achieved a victory earlier this summer when the retirement fund TIAA-CREF divested from Caterpillar tractors, a corporation directly profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The retirement fund moved $73 million due to popular pressure from JVP and other peace organizations.
While opposition to the conservative elements of the Israel lobby continues to build, groups will continue to build coalitions behind labels and a set of tactics. While the BDS debate remains the most divisive issue in the pro-peace community, the collective efforts of J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace and others serves to show that the majority of Americans, regardless of faith, believe that U.S. leadership needs to chart a new relationship with Israeli and Palestinian leadership in order to serve as an even handed mediator and arbiter in the conflict.