Peace Groups Lose First Major Gaza Challenge On Capitol Hill

Attempts by Activists To Shape Resolution Come Up Short

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.
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Washington — As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza entered its second week, Capitol Hill became the latest battleground where Jewish hawks and doves are trying to shape the American response to the ongoing violence.

Dovish groups bombarded lawmakers with calls and e-mails in an attempt to influence the wording of pro-Israel resolutions being shaped in the House and Senate. The groups’ line in the sand on those resolutions was straightforward: Unless the House and Senate included a call for an immediate cease-fire, the dovish groups would call on their supporters to actively oppose them.

For the Jewish peace camp, the first Middle East crisis of the new Congress and administration was an opportunity to flex its muscles and show presence on the national scene.

But in the end, they lost.

On January 7, Senate leaders introduced a resolution that only called for President Bush to “work actively to support a durable, enforceable, and sustainable cease-fire in Gaza, as soon as possible.” The resolution issued no call for a lifting of the commercial blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza, which has contributed to widespread poverty, as part of a cease-fire.

The crisis demonstrated the difficulties facing the Jewish community’s dissenting voices: refusal, even in the moderate sectors of the Jewish community, to criticize Israel at a time of war; large pockets of support for Israel’s actions; and limited efficacy when faced with the powerful political clout of establishment Jewish groups.

Activists for the four major dovish Jewish groups — J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — had put whatever power they had to sway members of Congress into adopting what they call a “more nuanced approach” toward the conflict, one that would express support for Israel, but at the same time call for an international effort to end military operations.

In a January 5 memo to congressional offices, APN even directly took on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington’s legendary pro-Israel lobby. “Unfortunately,” the APN memo stated, Aipac’s position “fails to mention any need to work to end the crisis.”

“This approach is regrettable,” APN added.

The IPF held meetings with Hill staffers, stressing the need to think beyond the issue of Israel’s right of self-defense. “I try to put things in context, to show that it is not black and white,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of the group’s Washington Policy Center. “It is very dangerous when members of Congress see the Jewish community speaking in one voice. They are offended by it.”

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, which focuses more on grass-roots operations, put out an action alert urging supporters to phone their representatives and ask for their support in an immediate cease-fire. “The U.S. must support conflict resolution, not escalation,” the alert read. Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek, said the calls also served as a reminder to lawmakers “that there is a new administration that has pledged itself to diplomacy.”

In Los Angeles, a group of liberal Jewish activists wrote a letter to the local Jewish paper, arguing that Israel is practicing its right of self-defense in a manner that is “ill-advised and morally questionable, causing considerable loss of life and grave damage.”

And J Street, which became a lightning rod for criticism from other pro-Israel activists, alerted its nearly 100,000 online supporters to sign a memo sent to Capitol Hill and to make phone calls to their representatives. The J Street memo states that “military action that is seen to be disproportionate to the threat and escalatory in nature will prove to be counterproductive.”

The group lists seven members of Congress who issued statements supportive of a quick halt to hostilities — though not necessarily an immediate cease-fire, as J Street is pressing for. Most were among 41 members and candidates who had received funds from J Street’s political action committee during this election cycle.

Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak told the Forward he agreed with J Street’s broad position that the United States must take a more active role in brokering a halt to hostilities in the region. 

“The military will stop a problem, but it’s not going to fix it,” said Sestak, a retired admiral. The “comprehensive diplomatic approach that’s needed there is J Street’s overarching point — that at the end of the day, war is not going to give Israel greater security.”

Still, as the Forward went to press, it was not clear that J Street’s financial support was always influential. Many of the other members of the endorsed group remained silent, and at least one, Democratic Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, issued a statement more in line with Aipac’s appeal than with J Street’s.

Aipac has listed on its Web site more than 100 members of Congress and elected officials who came out with statements expressing unconditional support for Israel’s actions.

The difficulty in getting the dovish message through on Capitol Hill became apparent as the House and Senate moved forward on formulating their pro-Israel resolutions. These resolutions have long been a congressional tradition and are passed, with the support of the pro-Israel lobby, whenever Israel reaches a military or diplomatic crossroad.

Attempts to include a direct call for an immediate cease-fire in the House resolution also seemed to be falling short as preparations reached their final stage. California Democrat Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Forward on January 6 that the resolution “supports Israel and the peace process.”

Berman, whose aides were in charge of writing the resolution, said the important message is that any agreement will ensure that the cease-fire is durable and sustainable. “We don’t want to see what happened in Lebanon happening here,” Berman said, referring to the 2006 cease-fire that was sponsored by the United Nations and halted combat between Israel and the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah. It did not succeed in preventing Hezbollah from regrouping and rearming.

For dovish Jewish groups, Congress was only one front of the battle. The other, and not less challenging, was the front within the Jewish community itself. Activists with J Street were surprised by the negative reactions to their call for cease-fire, especially that of the Reform movement’s leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who argued in a Forward opinion column January 9 that “J Street got it very wrong.” Since Yoffie comes from the heart of the liberal-dovish stream in which J Street swims, his criticism seemed more hurtful than that of others.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, issued a lengthy response to Yoffie’s critique and later said he was “always happy to have a disagreement with my best friends.”

But anger over J Street’s statement did not stop with Yoffie. Though they were unwilling to go on the record, officials from some of the other dovish groups voiced fury with Ben-Ami. “He should have his head handed to him,” one said, fuming.

In an hour-long conference call January 5, leaders of the Jewish dovish groups tried to coordinate their message and iron out any differences. Attempting to create a broader coalition, the groups were joined by representatives of two non-Jewish organizations that support a two-state solution: the Arab American Institute and Churches for Middle East Peace. These organizations, while critical of Israel’s military operation, oppose Hamas rule in Gaza.

In contrast to such organizations as StandWithUs, one tactic the dovish groups are not pursuing is street demonstrations. That has been left to anti-war and anti-Zionist groups much further to their left. The Answer Coalition, an organization that was behind many of the demonstrations against the Iraq War and that has campaigned against American intervention in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, leads most of those groups.

With reporting by Anthony Weiss.






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