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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Pushing Israel From Both Sides

The National Journal

April 16, 2008

By Julie Kosterlitz

What does it mean to be pro-Israel? With the Bush administration's 11th-hour push for renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the American Jewish community has renewed its soul-searching on this question. Two new political groups have proposed vastly different answers.

Last fall, about two dozen Jewish organizations, including several Orthodox and Zionist groups, banded together to oppose the stated intent of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government to consider sharing control over Jerusalem with a Palestinian entity. Led by Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an alliance of Orthodox congregations, they formed a nonprofit called the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem around the shared belief that that ancient city, as the council states, "is the capital of the Jewish people and the heritage of all Jews everywhere and ... we oppose any negotiations which involve possible concessions of Jewish sovereignty or control" over the city.

With an anticipated initial budget of just under $1 million, the CCJ has hired lobbyist and political consultant Jeff Ballabon, a former aide to then-Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., and a liaison to Jewish organizations in President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, to run its operations. "No one could imagine the day when an Israeli prime minister would suggest touching" Jerusalem's existing boundaries, Ballabon says. "It's time to say, 'When it comes to Jerusalem, it belongs to all Jews. Israel simply holds it as stewards for you.' "

A growing number of the CCJ's members have also soured on the broader thrust of the peace negotiations, which envision creation of a Palestinian state, that began with the Oslo accords of the 1990s and were reprised recently with the Bush administration's Annapolis peace conference, Ballabon says.

Meanwhile, Jewish activists who support a negotiated two-state solution are poised to launch a political action committee and lobbying entity to bolster support for their views in Congress and the White House. Referred to as the J Street Project, it is to be run by Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former deputy director of domestic policy in the Clinton White House and, until recently, senior vice president in the Washington office of Fenton Communications.

The project hopes to promote "a mainstream realist alternative to policy of recent years, of not engaging, of leaving peacemaking to the last minute," says Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and a former Clinton administration official who is active with several peace-oriented groups, including the J Street Project.

The project hopes to bolster the work of such peace groups as Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), which, because of federal tax rules, cannot contribute to campaigns or make lobbying a principal activity.

"There was a sense," Edelman says, "that we'd arrived at a time when we needed to augment the work of the current good organizations with a three-dimensional strategy." He and other doves believe that many members of Congress support the peace process but that they have been cowed by the large Israel-focused groups and like-minded political action committees, which tend to be hawkish.

Ben-Ami and others involved with the J Street Project declined to comment about details of their effort in advance of the group's formal launch in mid-April. But The Jewish Week, a New York publication, reported the names of other advisers to the group in March, and a source who asked not to be named confirmed them for National Journal. They include Debra DeLee, the CEO of Americans for Peace Now and a former chair of the Democratic National Committee; Marcia Freedman, an American-born former member of the Israeli Knesset and a founder of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom; and several activists with ties to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama of Illinois -- including Robert Malley, a foreign-policy adviser to the campaign, and top campaign fundraiser Alan Solomont. Billionaire and controversial liberal activist George Soros, a party to the early talks about forming a new group, is reportedly no longer involved, in part, sources say, because of concerns that his participation might be a lightning rod for critics.

Despite the political affiliations of key members of these two new organizations on the right and the left, most observers agree that neither group was created for partisan reasons. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says the fact that many of the organizers of both groups have political resumes is "more circumstantial than intentional. People who tend to be in favor of the peace process tend to be more liberal," and those who are "single-issue Israel supporters tend to be more hawkish -- for lots of religious and cultural reasons."

The creation of the two groups also underscores the difficulty that the large traditional pro-Israel lobbies face staking out a position on the peace process. The dominant American Israel Public Affairs Committee, spokesman Josh Block says, "strongly supports a two-state solution and hopes that the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will successfully result in peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians."

But as a practical matter, with strong divisions on the peace process in both Israel and the U.S. -- and within their governments -- AIPAC tends to concentrate on more-traditional issues, which garner widespread support: bolstering foreign aid for Israel and registering opposition to countries perceived as hostile to Israel. Groups such as AIPAC are "a little bit caught because Israeli society is divided, its government is divided, the prime minister is leaning a bit to the left, but he's not dragging his entire Cabinet along with him," says Nathan Brown, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

Brown, however, also confesses surprise at the emergence of the new groups. "It's kind of a funny time for this to be happening. If there's any consensus, it's that the current peace process is not exactly promising and all these issues are purely theoretical," he says.

But Saperstein -- who supports the goals of the J Street Project -- argues that the rise of the two groups reflects recognition across the political spectrum that Israel is fast approaching a crucial juncture. "People are beginning to feel that the parameters of the peace process are becoming clear," he says. The more-conservative and hawkish groups, which see the inclusion of a compromise on Jerusalem as likely, are "drawing a line in the sand"; the more-liberal groups "sense that the window is closing" for a two-state solution and want to make sure the United States keeps the pressure on both parties to the negotiations.

Although similar fissures split the Jewish community during the Oslo peace process, Saperstein sees new possibilities. "This is the first time you have groups that are clearly in the mainstream, although on the right, taking a position that is at variance with the government of Israel," he says.

Indeed, in late November, on the eve of the administration's Annapolis peace initiative, Olmert rebuked several groups for criticizing his government's apparent openness to negotiating on the issue of control of Jerusalem. "Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?" Olmert said, adding, "The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel." Since then, however, the Olmert government has finessed the issue, essentially declaring that there will be no discussion of control of Jerusalem, for now.

Ballabon's CCJ group remains unbowed. "We have the right -- because of the obvious pressure [on the Israeli government] by the State Department -- to start working for principles we consider primary. The bond between Jerusalem and the Jewish people has nothing to do with the state of Israel; it is a key tenet of the faith," Ballabon says. The council, which works with like-minded Israeli groups, hopes to be a conduit between dissenting members of the Knesset and the U.S. Congress, as well as to factions within the Bush administration. Still, he acknowledges, "it's not an easy case to make to say that Jewish groups and Christian Zionists should oppose the policies of the prime minister of the state of Israel."

On the left, American Jewish peace advocates, who for decades before the Oslo accords were often at odds with the Israeli government, view the plight of more-hawkish groups with a sense of irony but also some sense of identity. "Is it the role of diaspora Jewry to be an echo chamber for any elected government [in Israel], or can it take independent positions?" Edelman asks. "In that respect, we have lots in common with groups at the opposite end of the political spectrum."


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