J Street challenges the Israel lobby from within

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Story highlights

  • J Street aims to create space for candidates who back Israel, but may oppose some policies
  • J Street expects to contribute more for candidates it supports, but AIPAC still a powerhouse
  • With American Jewish support for a 2-state solution on the rise, J Street gains momentum
  • It's becoming more mainstream, but even supporters in Congress questioned its impact

As rockets and missiles traced the skies over Gaza and Israel, every side of the conflict swarmed cable news and social media to stake a claim to the higher moral ground, amplifying the debate over how to resolve the conflict.

But one group tried to break through the noise. J Street, which bills itself as a pro-Israel and pro-peace organization, released a statement that reaffirmed its actions over the past six years: challenging the status quo of the pro-Israel lobby.

While adding to the chorus of pro-Israel voices in the U.S. condemning Hamas and expressing support for Israel's right to defend itself, J Street tagged on a series of emphatic "ands."

"And ... we grieve for families in Gaza whose innocent children are dying," the statement said. "We take issue with those who say that discussing how to end the violence in the long run is not pro-Israel."

Since its founding in 2008, J Street -- an organization named after the missing street in Washington -- has pushed the limits of pro-Israel views accepted by the establishment.

It unapologetically condemns Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace and is dovish on Iran -- placing itself at odds with deep-seated Washington influence groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Despite attempts to marginalize it, J Street continues to elbow its way into the mainstream conversation over U.S. policy toward Israel and even claims the Obama administration has exemplified its policies.

J Street's core argument? Without two states, Israel's security and status as a Jewish and democratic nation is jeopardized, and American engagement or pressure should help spur what it sees as the desirable outcome.

The group has endorsed 84 candidates for Congress -- eight of them in Senate races -- in the midterms, and its electioneering arm, JStreetPAC, says it expects to spend more than $2 million to help them win.

So far this cycle, the PAC has spent $1.4 million to support its candidates, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That's almost double its debut spree of nearly $850,000 in 2008, which included more than $250,000 in overhead.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said it's "creating space" for candidates who support what he repeatedly described as a "moderate and sane" pro-Israel policy.

"If they felt that they could only raise money in the Jewish community, if they were really hawkish on Israel, they now know they can (without being) really hawkish," Ben-Ami said. "People can run for office and get meaningful financial support if they stand up for Israel in a pro two-state, pro-peace kind of way."

AIPAC's influence

J Street, however, still pales in comparison to AIPAC's influence, said former Rep. Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

"J Street is no doubt another avenue, another expression of support for the American-Israeli relationship," Wexler said. "(But) the two are not to be compared in terms of their breadth and influence."

AIPAC doesn't endorse or contribute to campaigns. Instead, its high-profile annual policy conference highlights candidates and is an opportunity for wealthy members -- and potential donors -- to mingle with those in power or aspiring to be. And it's the largest gathering of legislators bested only, it claims, by the State of the Union address.

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Center for Responsive Politics' research director Sarah Bryner called that influence "subtle power."

"There's a lot of recalcitrance to look as if you're acting counter to AIPAC's presentation of issues," Bryner said.

AIPAC declined multiple requests for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions from CNN.

The group also declined to participate in a segment on J Street with CNN's Christiane Amanpour in 2009, but did call J Street "fringe and far to the left" at the time.

Just six of the 27 senators and representatives contacted for this story agreed to be interviewed. The other 21 declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Most lawmakers contacted for this story were endorsed by J Street, including the only two Republicans the group has backed. Five other Republicans and three Democrats who are not aligned with J Street were also contacted.

AIPAC spent nearly $3 million to push its agenda in Congress last year compared to J Street's $400,000 lobbying effort, according to CRP.

Despite being outspent, J Street has countered the AIPAC machine on several bills in Congress.

Ben-Ami claimed the organization's most impactful moment came last winter when it played "an important role in helping put the brakes on the rush towards" additional sanctions against Iran -- a bipartisan bill that threatened to derail negotiations over curbing Tehran's nuclear program.

Fifty-nine senators signed onto the bill shortly after it was introduced, none of whom were endorsed by J Street. Facing an aggressive push that compelled even J Street's president to head to Capitol Hill, AIPAC eventually dropped its efforts when it could not whip up a veto-proof majority.

Impact hard to assess

But was it J Street that really stopped the bill? The group's direct impact is difficult to assess because President Barack Obama also opposed it and threatened a veto.

Other pro-Israel groups, like the American Jewish Committee, downplayed J Street's impact on the legislation.

"Others may come along and try to suggest that they were responsible, but in truth, the one responsible party was the administration," said David Harris, executive director of the AJC, which lobbied in support of additional sanctions.

Harris insisted J Street's growth has not affected the influence of the pro-Israel establishment.

"Our access is as good as it's ever been," he said. "The work of AIPAC and the work of the AJC and the work of the mainstream community, the centrist community is as active and effective as I can recall, and I've been doing this work for quite some time."

J Street has wrestled with the establishment since coming onto the scene, claiming to be the new representatives of the mainstream Jewish community.

"We're trying to better represent the diversity of views that exist in the Jewish community," Ben-Ami said. "That median, that 50-yard line in the American Jewish community, is not what people on the Hill hear from the established voices."

But a majority in the establishment don't see it that way and kept J Street from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations this spring.

Morton Klein, president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, voted against J Street's admission and blasted the group as "very hostile to Israel" for its positions, including not condemning the Palestinian Authority for bringing Hamas into a unity government.

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J Street received the news of the coalition government with "caution," but said political reconciliation would help resolve the conflict: "One makes peace with one's enemies not one's friends," the group said in a media release.

Klein, whose organization opposes a Palestinian state because it "would be a terrorist state," said he doesn't believe J Street's positions are gaining any ground in Congress.

"Congress now is much more clear-thinking about the Arab war against Israel than they were 10 years ago," he said.

Generational shift may expand debate

But J Street's strategy is not as Capitol Hill-centric as AIPAC's, Duke University professor and former State Department senior adviser Bruce Jentleson said.

"What they're focusing on is there's kind of a battle within the American Jewish community for the hearts and minds of the next young generation who are not pro-Palestinian, but are growing up in a different environment than after the Holocaust or the 1967 war," Jentleson said.

And until now, the scope of political debate over Israel in the United States has been more constrained than in Israel, Jentleson said.

But a generational shift may be widening the scope of acceptable debate.

Polling from the American Jewish Committee, which favors a two-state solution, showed in 2013 that half of American Jews support the establishment of a Palestinian state -- compared to just 38% in 2011. And only about four in 10 American Jews believed in October the Israeli government was making a sincere push for peace, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Answering a different call: Americans who fight for Israel

American sympathy for Israelis has steadily increased over the past two decades, according to Gallup polling, and 57% of Americans continue to believe Israeli military action in Gaza is justified, like during the latest flare-up in 2012.

But days into the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, a CNN/ORC poll revealed 60% of Americans view Israel favorably-- down from 72% in February.

J Street's emergence is providing an outlet for a new generation of Israel supporters who may not identify with the hawkish, conservative brand of Israeli advocacy, said Michael Barnett, a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University.

And these shifting views are translating to Capitol Hill.

"It has created a little more breathing space," Barnett said. "The kind of nearly automatic support for Israel to engage in all kinds of actions is disappearing."

Trying to sway the Hill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat endorsed by J Street in 2012, broke with the AIPAC line on settlements in 2010 in an email to supporters in which she expressed her concerns over their expansion in the West Bank. Feinstein declined to be interviewed.

And in the House, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, also endorsed by J Street, introduced a bill in September co-sponsored by 122 members -- most of them J Street-aligned -- expressing strong support for the latest round of peace talks and the urgency of achieving a two-state solution. Schakowsky also declined to be interviewed.

Ben-Ami noted the importance of the resolution and also pointed to the absence of any legislation attempting to "undermine the administration or tie its hands" throughout the U.S.-led negotiations.

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Reps. Adam Smith and David Price, both Democrats endorsed by J Street, have also spoken out against Israeli settlements and criticized the intermittent calls to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Smith said J Street has been a "reasonably effective lobby" and said its membership has increased in his district in Washington state. But he added that he is unsure whether its positions are making headway on Capitol Hill.

"It's hard for me to say whether or not they're gaining steam," Smith said. "I'm not overwhelmingly optimistic about whether a sensible, pragmatic approach is gaining any traction in Congress."

Price, of North Carolina, said he believes the organization has widened the debate.

"The range of opinions and debate in Israel is certainly more than in the U.S. Congress," Price said. "J Street has changed that and I think many members appreciate that."

But Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York who disagrees with the organization's positions, called J Street's impact "marginal" and said he doesn't see a need for the organization.

"It may be having an impact with those who were opposed to Israeli policy anyways and can kind of hide behind J Street because it's a Jewish organization," he said.

But even some who don't agree with J Street still recognize that there is room for dialogue.

Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat allied with AIPAC who disagrees with J Street's policies, said support for Israel doesn't have to come at the expense of debate and discussion.

"There's no blank checks for Israel, there's no blank checks for the United States, there's no blank checks for anybody," Engel said.

And support for Israel remains the most bipartisan issue in today's gridlocked Congress, Engel affirmed.

Earlier this month, just a few days into the current conflict, the Senate and House swiftly passed resolutions condemning Hamas and reaffirming Israel's right to defend itself, which gained widespread co-sponsorship support in both chambers.

"I think it's important that Israel understands that at a time when frankly most of the world is against Israel ... that the United States stands with them through good times and bad times," Engel said.

The view from Israel

Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a CNN Middle East analyst, called those resolutions significant in shielding Israel from the fallout of widespread international criticism, particularly during the escalation of tensions with Hamas.

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"Just like you need military Iron Dome, you need a diplomatic Iron Dome to protect yourself from condemnations from the (United Nations) Security Council and efforts to prevent Israel from defending itself," Oren said, drawing parallels to Israel's missile defense system.

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Oren, who was once highly critical of J Street, said the group has since become more mainstream. But he still shied away from explicitly characterizing it as pro-Israel.

Danny Danon, a member of Israel's conservative Likud Party and until recently deputy defense minister, has gone so far as to call J Street a pro-Palestinian organization.

"I think they focus too much on criticizing Israel rather than supporting Israel. We have enough organizations that are criticizing and attacking Israel," Danon said.

Danon, who recently called for Israel to cut its supply of electricity and gas to Gaza, said the recent escalation should show American leadership that Israel has no viable partner for peace in the region.

"If God forbid there will be a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it will be a copy-paste of the current situation in Gaza," Danon said.

That is the position that has consistently frustrated J Street leaders and their supporters, including Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, who expressed his frustration with Israeli and Palestinian leadership in making diplomatic progress.

"Just as we have conservatism in America that wants everything to remain as it is now or it seeks to take us back to how things used to be, I think we have that same mindset in Israel among some of its leaders and it causes gridlock," Johnson, a Democrat endorsed by J Street, said.

And AIPAC represents the positions of the Israeli right in Washington, Johnson said.

"I think the people of Palestine -- the people of the West Bank, the people of Gaza -- and the people of Israel are ready for peace," he said.