31 Oct

Moderate in America’s Jewish Lobby Causes a Stir

“You can be sure that this administration will be represented at all future J Street conferences.”


NYT, October 31, 2009

WASHINGTON — The tensions and sharp disagreements that have ripened among many American Jews over President Obama’s approach to Middle East issues were on public display here this week as a fledgling Jewish group held its first convention.

Mr. Obama sent his top national security aide to the convention of the group, known as J Street, but the Israeli ambassador pointedly stayed home. Some members of Congress agreed to be part of the event, only to withdraw their support in the face of criticism from their own political backers.

J Street has only a small fraction of the resources and membership of more established pro-Israel groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and it remains unclear how potent it will be in presenting itself as an alternative. Nonetheless, it has had great success in quickly becoming a major reference point in the complicated debate over President Obama’s Middle East policy as well as the more emotional issue of the appropriate role for American Jews in supporting Israel.

While opinions in the Jewish community have never been uniform or monolithic, several analysts, elected officials and pollsters said the debate over Mr. Obama’s approach to Israel and its neighbors has sharpened boundaries between those who strongly support him and those who have grown more wary.

J Street has tried to position itself as a counterweight to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which J Street supporters say require the United States to support the Israeli government too reflexively.

Many of its critics say that J Street, by presenting itself as an American Jewish pro-Israel group that believes that Mr. Obama should be free to disagree with the Israeli government, is harmful to Israel’s long-term interests and encourages obduracy in its Arab adversaries.

Despite the controversy, the White House has made unmistakable gestures to lend support and legitimacy to J Street (the name is a play on the lobbyist corridor on K Street; Washington has no street named J). After including the group in a private meeting over the summer for major American Jewish organizations, it took the more notable and public step this week of sending Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, to deliver Tuesday’s keynote address at the J Street convention.

General Jones did not offer any new policy prescriptions but received prolonged standing applause when he told the crowd of more than 1,000, “You can be sure that this administration will be represented at all future J Street conferences.”

But among the missing at the conference was the Israeli ambassador, Michael B. Oren, who declined to attend, and more than a dozen of the 161 members of Congress who had agreed to be included on an honorary committee for the event. The Congressional members who reversed themselves asked that their names be withdrawn after some opponents of J Street asserted that supporting the group was not in Israel’s best interests.

Some Israeli officials have said privately that they do not want to offend Aipac and its members who have loyally supported the Israeli government for years. Ambassador Oren said in an interview that he declined to attend because of concerns “about several of J Street’s policies that may impair Israeli interests.” He said that he was not ordered by the Israeli government to skip the conference but that the government shared those concerns.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which conducts an annual survey of American Jewish political opinion, said that he believed that there were now three distinct groups in the country. The largest, he said, is in the middle, composed of people who are hopeful that Mr. Obama will succeed in advancing peace in the Middle East but who remain understandably uncertain as to how things may play out.

Beyond that, he said, there have emerged “two doctrinaire camps” that he described as those who support Mr. Obama no matter what he does with regard to Israel and those who “are convinced that the president does not support Israel in his kishkes,” a Yiddish word similar to “gut.”

The opponents, Mr. Harris said, are a minority, but they have become more vociferous in their view that Mr. Obama “is focused on the Arab world and is trying to put Israel in a corner.”

Exit polls found that 77 percent of American Jews voted for Mr. Obama, a higher percentage than any other religious group. A recent Gallup poll found support for the president among 64 percent of American Jews, still the highest of any religious group. The American Jewish Committee survey last month had 54 percent of American Jews supporting the president’s relations with Israel and 32 percent disapproving.

The main issue that set the polarization in motion, many say, was the administration’s public feud in the summer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after an American demand that Israel immediately freeze any construction in the settlements.

Steve Grossman, a former president of Aipac and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the administration’s approach on the settlements issue had caused “an enormous sense of anxiety” among many American Jews.

“It seemed that too much was being laid on Israel without any commensurate demand on the other side,” he said, noting that it created “an emotional chasm.”

The issue of how much any American administration should press an Israeli government to make concessions for peace is at the heart of delicate and long-unresolved questions among American Jews. At the least, say the traditional supporters of Israel, any disagreements should not be aired publicly.

At the height of the American-Israeli disagreement in June, Aipac was able to get more than 300 members of Congress to sign a resolution that in effect urged that disagreements between Israel and the United States be dealt with privately.

J Street officials have said one of their principal beliefs is that any administration, Mr. Obama’s included, should have some room to disagree with Israel’s government in order to become a more effective broker in the region.

A senior administration official said that the president and his advisers were aware of the restiveness caused by the summer’s dispute with Mr. Netanyahu over settlements. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Obama’s stance on settlements was not a drastic departure from longstanding policy and that relations with the Netanyahu government were now excellent.

Jim Gerstein, one of J Street’s founders, said his research and other polls found that most American Jews were uncomfortable with Israel’s settlement policy. But he said Orthodox Jews generally did support it.

In Israel itself, Mr. Obama’s favorable rating dropped in August to about 4 percent, according to a poll for The Jerusalem Post.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to arrive in Israel on Saturday to discuss the regional situation.

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