J Street, a liberal Jewish-American lobbying group barely five years old and once shunned by top Israeli officials, is claiming as a victory the fact that Chuck Hagel was confirmed as defense secretary despite opposition from more conservative Jewish groups.
In the week when the most influential Jewish-American group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, held its annual conference in Washington, J Street has been touting its role in securing Hagel’s nomination, which supporters say shows its growing clout.
J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said he called Hagel in December as soon as he heard rumors that President Barack Obama wanted the former Republican senator to be his secretary of defense.
It was weeks before the nomination became public, but it took only a day for the group to issue its first statement supporting Hagel, who would endure attacks from groups such as the hawkish Republican-linked Emergency Committee for Israel.
Hagel was heavily criticized for saying in a 2006 interview that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress.
“I called and said, ‘Do you realize you need a defense?’” Ben-Ami said.
“I just sensed right away that this was going to be very serious, and people are going to seize on one word, one phrase and they are going to take it and extrapolate it out and make it a blanket smear,” Ben-Ami said.
Lou Ann Linehan, a former Hagel staffer who worked with him during the nomination fight, gives credit to J Street for its support. “From the very first, they were always helpful with getting the facts. Just facts,” she said.
The White House declined to comment on J Street. Obama aides have made clear privately that they were well aware of the advice the group gave to Hagel’s camp about how to get through what would become a rocky confirmation process.