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Liberal Mideast Newsletter To Launch

Washington – A prominent liberal think tank is launching a new e-mail newsletter following claims that the main daily digest put out by the Jewish community advances a right-wing agenda.

The Center for American Progress is set to launch the Middle East Bulletin, which will be arriving in subscribers’ inboxes beginning next week. It aims to take on Daily Alert, published by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and prepared by a right-wing think tank in Israel.

Sources involved with the new project are not directly presenting the initiative as a response to the popular Daily Alert, but they said that frustration over what they see as bias in Daily Alert sparked the idea of publishing a product that is similar, but in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We see ourselves as filling the vacuum that now exists,” said Jim Gerstein, a consultant who came up with the idea for the Middle East Bulletin. “We want to take all the good work that is being done by groups working for a two-state solution and amplify it.”

Preparations for the launch of the new information service have been in place for several months, both in the United States and in Israel. Editors in Jerusalem and Washington are already working on compiling articles, opinion pieces and backgrounders from the Israeli and American press, and from think tanks and individuals. Pilot versions of the service were sent out last week to a small group of recipients, and the official launch is expected to take place May 7.

One of these pilot issues, produced two weeks ago, appears to provide a preview of the political slant of the new service. Dedicated to the controversy over the takeover of a house in Hebron by Jewish settlers, the pilot issue in question opens with an article by attorney Talia Sasson, who authored the government’s report on illegal outposts two years ago. Alongside Sasson’s article, which asserts that the settlers had no legal right to enter the house, appear several other news items relating to the settlers and to their relationship with Israeli authorities. Also on the page are an opinion piece by Americans for Peace Now spokesman (and former Forward writer) Ori Nir arguing that the IDF is being worn out in its daily struggle with civilian population in the West Bank and unsigned background articles reminding the readers of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s promise to divert settlements’ money to other causes in Israel.

“Our goal is not to reflect the views of the Israeli government or of any other side,” Gerstein said. “We are looking at it through the eyes of what is the American interest in the Middle East based on the belief that a secure agreement between Israel and its neighbors is a vital American interest.”

A Democratic strategist, Gerstein has a long record of working with pro-peace groups in the United States and in Israel. He was the executive director of the Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation, and he worked on Ehud Barak’s prime ministerial campaign during the 1999 Israeli elections.

Gerstein hopes that the Middle East Bulletin will become a leading voice for a two-state solution within the Jewish community, but mainly among decision makers who deal with Middle East issues. The bulletin will be sent to Capitol Hill offices and to administration staffers, foreign policy experts and journalists. It will also be spread through already existing e-mail lists of dovish Jewish organizations.

The project is sponsored by the Center for American Progress through its recently launched Middle East Progress initiative. This marks the first time that the center — headed by John Podesta, who served in the White House as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff — is taking a high-profile public position on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Already the center’s Middle East Progress initiative has focused on projects encouraging business opportunities for Palestinians; now it is launching its first effort to sway American public opinion.

“The American public debate on the Middle East is missing significant parts of the robust discussion which is taking place in Israel,” said Mara Rudman, who heads the Middle East Progress program.

Rudman is also a veteran of the Clinton administration, where she served as a coordinator between the White House and the National Security Council. She added that the center feels “very comfortable and confident” with the views it will be presenting in the Middle East Bulletin, and that “this is the place where reasonable people understand that the American interest lays.”

While not seen as a Jewish initiative, several pro-peace American Jewish groups have provided input to the Middle East Bulletin project while it was being developed, and will also participate in supplying editorial material and mailing lists.

The new initiative faces an uphill fight in matching the reach of Daily Alert, an e-mail bulletin widely considered to be one of the most effective focused on Middle East news. No official figures are available, but estimates of Daily Alert’s circulation range from 100,000 to 250,000. It is prepared for the Presidents Conference— an umbrella group representing 52 Jewish organizations — by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The center is a think tank in Israel led by Dore Gold, who is a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a close adviser to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gold was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, did not respond to the Forward’s questions regarding Daily Alert.

While Daily Alert states that its mission is to bring “Israel-related news stories from mainstream English and Hebrew media sources,” critics argue that the summary fails to reflect the mainstream of Israel’s public discourse and that it shuts off news and views associated with the Israeli left.

“It is very skewed to the right,” said M.J. Rosenberg, Israel Policy Forum’s director of policy analysis. IPF is an American Jewish advocacy group that supports aggressive American efforts to help secure a two-state solution. “When you read it, you get the feeling it is coming from the Israeli right wing and from the Jewish right wing.”

Gidon Remba, executive director of Ameinu, the Labor Zionist Alliance, argued that Daily Alert is being used by opponents of the two-state vision. “I view it as a kind of propaganda that is intended to strengthen the regressive forces in the Jewish community,” Remba said.

Other Jewish activists have also expressed their frustration over the coverage provided by Daily Alert, though they insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity they feel in coming out against a publication sponsored by the Presidents Conference. “It is as if there is no peace process, as if there is no one in Israel who supports dialogue with the Palestinians,” said an official of one Jewish group. According to another Jewish group official, Daily Alert consistently emphasizes threats to Israel while ignoring peace overtures by Israelis and Arabs.

One recent example widely cited by critics was Daily Alert’s treatment of the recent discussions in the Middle East regarding the Arab League peace initiative. While the Israeli press widely reported about Olmert’s sudden increasing interest in the plan and his willingness to discuss some of its elements with Arab negotiators, Daily Alert hardly reported on this shift in Israeli policy. Instead, it provided several commentary and analysis articles that were critical of the Arab League plan, and Daily Alert stressed the Arab refusal to make changes to the proposal.

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