Washington needs a balance to AIPACs lobbying methods

Israel’s needs are primarily represented in the United States, over and above the Israeli embassy and consulates, by AIPAC, considered to be the most formidable lobby operating in the U.S.

When I was director-general of the Israel Foreign Ministry, I worked closely with AIPAC, and was full of admiration for the dedication and the efficiency of its leaders and staff. Those were the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and AIPAC’s activities dovetailed seamlessly with the policies of the government of Israel.

Since those days, it has grown enormously and extended its power to such an extent that no American politician can ignore its clout. It has become the dominant factor on the American Jewish landscape, keeping American politicians in line with what AIPAC’s leaders conceive to be the best interests of Israel.

Woe betide any politician who ignores the demands of this powerful lobby.

On the face of it, that sounds great for Israel. But the problem lies in the ways AIPAC interprets Israel’s best interests and delivers its message. In truth, today we have a situation in which the dog’s tail is wagging the dog. AIPAC has become more militant than the Israeli government. Its messages reflect more of the oppositionist Likud doctrine than the moderate stance of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Moreover, while the American Jewish community is known for its liberal, progressive pro-Democrat party heritage, AIPAC is geared to an extreme right-wing agenda, often more in line with the Jewish neoconservatives than with the majority of American Jews.

Coupled with this is the lobby’s method of persuading recalcitrant politicians, which is becoming increasingly distasteful to many of the new politicians who sit in Congress.

These are the reasons that a number of pro-Israeli American Jews closely aligned with the Democratic Party felt the need to launch a new political action committee, to act more in line with the real interests of Israel.

The lobby is named J Street (J for Jewish; K Street is where many of Washington’s lobbyists are situated). Its founders do not consider it to be a rival of AIPAC, but rather an effort to offer politicians something different from that powerful body, something that will serve the true interests of Israel.

The executive director of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration and whose grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Tel Aviv, wrote in the Forward that “voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel’s core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally recognized borders.”

He adds, “I support Israel. My family history ingrains in me the belief that the Jewish people need and deserve a home. I know that that nation must be strong and secure and that a deep bond between Israel and America is essential to its survival. I heed those in Israel who say we are fast approaching a point of no return beyond which it may be impossible to secure Israel’s future as the Jewish democratic home envisioned by my father, the Irgunist, and his grandparents, the socialist Zionist pioneers. An immediate, negotiated end to the conflict is, simply, an existential necessity — and the time to reach it is running out.”

Ben-Ami and his colleagues in J Street believe that the U.S. must follow a more active policy to achieve this goal. The next president should not wait until the seventh year of his/her term in office to act, as President George W. Bush has done. Do these beliefs warrant him and his supporters to be branded as anti-Zionist, a danger to Israel?

J Street intends to tackle the changes occurring on the American political landscape. It identifies the dangers of a political backlash against the methods employed by AIPAC, and their distaste for its far right-wing agenda. It intends to make a special effort to win over the young generation. “There is a real generational issue here,” Ben Ami says.

Those same youngsters — Jewish and non-Jewish — who are today rooting for Barack Obama, or working on Darfur or Tibet, need to be recruited for the just cause of Israel, and J Street intends to make that one its principal objectives.

J Street is as pro-Israel as AIPAC. It is as pro-Israel as a former foreign minister of Israel, a former IDF chief of general staff, a former head of the Israel Air Force, and a former head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Strategic Studies — to mention just a few of the supporters of J Street.

David Kimche is president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

J Street: the right path or a dead end?