J Street Swims Upstream in Election Year

Group Targets Dovish Message at Obama Democrats

Not Easy for J Street: J Street’s pro-peace message may be a tough sell during an election year in which even liberals are moving to the right on Israel.
liz malby
Not Easy for J Street: J Street’s pro-peace message may be a tough sell during an election year in which even liberals are moving to the right on Israel.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 28, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
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In this election year, even liberal Democrats are seeking to protect their flanks by touting hawkish credentials on Israel.

For J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby whose annual Washington conference wrapped up recently, that makes 2012 a year for swimming upstream. The group is targeting its message where it believes it will have the most impact: Jewish Democrats who support President Obama.

“They do need to take a stand on what it means to be pro-Israel so politicians stop pandering,” said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, referring to dovish Jewish voters who he believes could have a much bigger impact.

The lobby wants to push the White House and its supporters not to abandon the Mideast peace process and to press for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, even as Israel looks warily at the threat posed by Iran.

In contrast to the determinedly bipartisan strategy of its much larger rival, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Ben-Ami candidly acknowledged that neither Republicans or conservatives may be receptive to J Street’s message.

“There’s no question that the position that J Street takes and the language that we use will never appeal to a solid quarter of the American Jewish community,” Ben-Ami said.

The reaction of the conference to the Obama administration officials’ speeches dramatically illustrated the group’s strong identity within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It also may indicate a certain wariness about Obama’s apparent willingness to set aside their views when it seems politically expedient to do so.

The crowd gave only muted applause to comments touting the administration’s positions on the Middle East, Iran and the Palestinian issue. But the audience offered a lengthy standing ovation to Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett when she trumpeted the president’s health reform plan. Her mention of women’s rights to birth control brought the J Street delegates to their feet.

Given that it’s an election year, many analysts see little or no chance of pushing Obama into a more active role in the peace process anytime soon.

But J Street nevertheless wants to continue a fight to define “the future of pro-Israel,” as the group dubs its campaign. The issue is especially urgent because Republican candidates are increasingly eager to stake out much more hawkish approaches to the Middle East conflict.

Jim Gerstein, a Democratic pollster and one of J Street’s founders, said that the drive to educate voters on dovish pro-Israel views does not reflect a concern about losing votes to Republicans.


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