A Liberal Israel Group Has Its Moment

Is J Street back in the fold? Trying to create the "political environment" in Washington for peace in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON — The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this week is the latest mark of a reshuffled Washington Israel politics, one that has put the liberal Israel lobby J Street — a group badly marginalized in President Barack Obama's first term — back into the mix.

President Obama's new indifference to criticism from Israel hawks — exemplified by his nomination of Secretary of State Chuck Hagel — and Secretary of State John Kerry's new push come as the five-year-old liberal peace process advocacy group may finally have gotten a foothold on Capitol Hill and in the White House. The group is also taking some credit for the shift — though critics point out that the new peace talks come under a different framework than the one J Street advocated.

"I do think that the political environment in which the talks are conducted is extremely important and I think that the atmosphere around the talks does impact their probability of success," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of J Street. "It is really important that there be a sense of political support for what the president and the secretary of state are doing."

"We have had an impact over the five years of J Street's existence in creating an atmosphere," Ben-Ami said. But "it is being too narrow in one's view on this to put it in a political lens," he stressed.

In an interview with The New Republic earlier this week, Ben-Ami said, "We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community."

"If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street," Ben-Ami told TNR.

"J Street is having a moment," said one senior Congressional staffer, who is critical of the group, regretfully.

After barely surviving an intense effort by hawkish supports of Israel to render it politically toxic, the liberal group is at least making its way back to respectability — and has some concrete successes to show for it. The Dent-Price letter to the White House calling for a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program last week, signed by 131 members of Congress, was a coup for J Street's worldview, though 104 of the 131 signers voted for tighter Iran sanctions this week. And J Street's PAC aligned itself with California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose reelection bid it raised money for last year along with 60 other Congressional campaigns.

"J Street is one of the groups out there working to open up that political space," said Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs. "Our job is quite an easy one in the sense that very few members still need to be convinced that it's good policy. Part of this is because of the work J Street and others have done to open up the political space so there is no political blowback for members."

The group has also done some tactical repositioning, spending time lining up with more hawkish Israel supporters on issues like opposing boycotts of Israel and backing sanctions on Iran.

Its goal now, Ben-Ami said, is to create political conditions for compromise on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. "There has never been a political basis for demonstrating that support in Congress to back up a presidential effort. That's a really important distinction – the awareness today of a really strong political support effort. I really think that's significant."

This is not to say J Street has made any new friends on the right. While Feinstein is sponsoring a resolution, backed by J Street, to support Kerry's peace efforts, the group has yet to find a House sponsor for the resolution — though conversation are underway. And critics say any progress is in spite, not because, of the liberal group.

"J Street has been creating an atmosphere for the peace process like a barnacle creates an atmosphere for a ship to sail," said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel. "The peace process has been an Obama obsession for years, and now he's added John Kerry's fixation on it to the mix. These men need no encouragement. To the extent J Street has any influence, it's only to discredit Obama's approach by associating such a radical anti-Israel group with the president's agenda."

Josh Block, director of The Israel Project and former AIPAC spokesman, argued that the issues that J Street advocates for have nothing to do with the conditions that have led to the peace process restarting — that they're in fact the opposite.

"It's encouraging that Secretary Kerry has gotten to the point where the Palestinians have finally agreed to talk peace with Israel after five years, and for bit players like that to claim any credit is an insult to the Secretary and like a bird taking credit for the wind or plankton taking credit for a tsunami," Block said. "The very ideas those people advocated — obsession with settlements and public pressure on Israel, not the recalcitrant Palestinians — were the reason for five years of total breakdown, and it's the 180 degree turn away from them by the Secretary and White House that has revived the process, proving their complete irrelevance."

J Street argues that it is at least pulling some support in the American Jewish community away from larger and more hawkish organizations, like AIPAC, the top pro-Israel lobbying group in D.C. which still vastly outstrips J Street in money and influence.

"There are people who have been in more traditional organizations, I don't mean to single out one, but there are more and more people who have come to see that what we're saying is pretty reasonable and rational," Ben-Ami said.

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