Revived Israel Policy Forum aims to rise above partisan fray

Is there room for a Jewish group that pushes the Israeli consensus on peace and keeps above the cacophony of the American partisan fray?

Twenty years ago, it was a no-brainer. The Israel Policy Forum was founded at the behest of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who at the time was frustrated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s slowness in embracing the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.

In more recent years, however, the IPF has nearly disappeared in influence and presence. Now it hopes to revive itself with some of Jewish life’s heavy hitters, people who hint they are frustrated with the seemingly partisan politics of J Street and others.

“You could make the case that an organization like IPF is more needed now than ever, promoting a two-state solution without playing politics,” said Aaron David Miller, a former negotiator in the Clinton and first Bush administrations who has been associated with IPF since his 2001 retirement from government. “You do have increasing polarization in the Jewish community now, and it’s not a good thing.”

At the 2005 IPF gala dinner, then–Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (center) is flanked by IPF president Seymour Reich (left) and businessman Marvin Lender. photo/jta-courtesy ipf

Miller is not alone in his assessment.

Among the new significant names signing onto IPF’s revival are Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who just ended his term as president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who is retiring and in recent years had public disagreements both with the Israeli establishment and J Street; Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt; and philanthropist Charles Bronfman.

“I believe that the broad base of the American Jewish community wants and needs realism [that] to my mind, neither the left nor the right are providing,” Bronfman said in an email.

Peter Joseph, IPF’s president, said he sees the need for nuance in a time when pronounced dissent characterizes debate on the region. Joseph would not be specific, but he did not deny that his description could apply to J Street, the liberal lobby that bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” and which grew by leaps and bounds just as IPF was fading.

A J Street spokeswoman declined to comment on IPF’s resurrection. But M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s Washington director until 2009 and now the author of an often biting blog with a pronounced leftist slant, said, “All this will do is drain support away from J Street, because it won’t drain support from AIPAC.”

IPF’s rise and fall was synonymous with the peace process itself.

Throughout the 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century, it occupied a unique Middle East policy nexus: the making and influencing of policy, and the thinking about it.

When President Bill Clinton unveiled his Clinton Parameters for Arab-Israel peacemaking in 2001, he chose an IPF gala to do it. Four years later, then–Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought the same audience to announce Ariel Sharon’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Yet as attitudes hardened during the second intifada, IPF’s emphasis on interaction seemed less relevant. Still, the group managed to retain some clout. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would invite IPF president Seymour Reich to meetings with Jewish leaders when she sought a voice to balance AIPAC’s hawkish line.

IPF’s last major hurrah was its 2005 gala dinner in New York, when Olmert, representing then–Prime Minister Sharon, signaled a new readiness to talk with the Palestinians.

The ensuing efforts to renew peace talks by President George W. Bush and later President Barack Obama never gathered momentum, and the dialogue in the U.S. Middle East peace community — and among American Jews — grew more fractious. There was a split between those who favored the classic AIPAC strategy of heeding the Israeli government of the day, and those such as J Street who favored intensive U.S. involvement.

IPF was not spared the dissension: Rosenberg argued within the organization for a more assertive alignment with J Street, while Joseph insisted on maintaining the nonpartisan middle. By late 2009, Rosenberg had left, and IPF was absorbed into the pro-Obama think tank the Center for American Progress. IPF was little heard from until it parted ways with CAP late last year.

Next month, the group’s advisers, veteran and recent, will convene in New York to consider the group’s future direction.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.