Washington — Merger talks are heating up among three leading dovish Israel advocacy groups in a development that proponents hope will produce a new mega-organization with greater political clout and more money to push for a two-state solution.
Leaders of Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom are weighing the idea and are expected to reach a decision by the fall. The discussions are being held within each of the groups and between leaders of the three organizations, under the auspices of several Washington-based activists who are promoting the idea of a pro-peace Jewish lobby.
The idea of forming a joint left-leaning entity — that some portray as a dovish counter to the existing pro-Israel lobby — has been bouncing around for six months and was initially seen as being backed by billionaire George Soros. At this point, according to organizers, Soros is out, but the talks have reached the final stages with at least two options on the table.
Some liberal observers are hoping that a new joint entity could emerge as a counter to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that doves have accused of working against efforts to convince the White House to do more to advance Israeli-Palestinian talks. Organizers of the new initiative are publicly dismissing any talk of weakening or competing against Aipac; at the same time, they insist that the goal is to create a new voice for American Jews.
“This is about creating something new, big and bold,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a main proponent of the current merger talks. A former Clinton administration aide, Ben-Ami is now a senior executive at Fenton Communications.
Proponents of the merger aim to raise $10 million — double the combined annual budgets of the three organizations — to help launch the new initiative. Part of the money would come from contributors who already back the three existing groups, but most of the $10 million — if the goal is reached — is expected to come from donors who currently do not give to Jewish organizations or to other pro-Israel groups. Among the potential donors being targeted are Jewish figures in Hollywood, as well as young liberal Jewish philanthropists who currently focus their giving on non-Jewish causes Soros attended only one of the first meetings about the initiative, but he eventually dropped out. Other activists and donors have continued pushing the idea forward.
In addition to Ben-Ami, the list of organizers includes Daniel Levy, one-time adviser to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, and Jim Gerstein, a Democratic strategist who is active in pro-peace organizations.
According to sources familiar with the talks, the organizations are being asked to choose between two options: instituting a formal merger that would create a joint pro-peace organization under which the three existing groups would continue to operate, or creating a separate new body that would raise funds independently and provide financial assistance and backing to projects directed by the existing groups.
Originally, Jewish activists behind the new initiative had planned to come up with an agreed structure and a strong commitment for financial backing by this summer, but difficulties in fundraising, and drawn-out discussions within the groups, forced a postponement of the target date for launching the new project.
“Jews like to talk; it takes time,” an official close to the negotiations said. After initially discussing the idea in small forums, it was recently brought to larger circles within the leadership of all three groups. The first meeting took place Tuesday between IPF and APN leaders, without the presence of the initiative’s outside organizers. The two groups discussed not only the prospects of the new initiative but also the question of whether it should include a grass-roots organization such as Brit Tzedek. Many of those involved in the new initiative are remaining tight-lipped and have asked their members to keep the negotiations away from the public eye. When asked about the talks, officials with all three groups refused to discuss details.
David Elcott, IPF’s executive director, said that “the groups are talking with each other, and that is a good thing.” Diane Cantor, executive director of Brit Tzedek, called the situation “fluid” and said that “it is encouraging to see there is such willingness to work together.” Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman and the Forward’s former Washington correspondent, said that “APN is taking part in talks about the new initiative with the hope that these discussions will lead to positive results.”
Despite the general reluctance to delve into details, some officials and lay leaders involved in the project provided the Forward with Iinformation on the proposed structure and the obstacles that the initiative is facing.
According to sources close to the talks, the new organization would tap the specific expertise of each of the member groups: Brit Tzedek would continue to coordinate its grass-roots operation, IPF would focus on formulating policy proposals and APN would lead the lobbying efforts. The division of responsibilities would not be rigid, and APN and IPF are expected to overlap on policy and advocacy work. Each group would maintain its fundraising operations, with the money raised by the joint project added on to their respective budgets. Discussions have yet to focus on the structure of the proposed entity’s joint leadership and its process for hiring staffers and staking out positions.
Currently, the three groups raise about $5 million a year for their work in America. APN’s budget nears $3 million, but a third of the money is sent to the Israeli organization Peace Now; IPF raises $2 million, and Brit Tzedek $1 million. Ideologically, all three groups agree on the need to strengthen Israel through promoting the peace process. They all call for stepped-up American diplomatic efforts on this front. Still, differences exist. APN, for example, focues a more resources and monitoring and criticizing Israeli settlement policy.
Sources close to the initiative say IPF now seems to be the group most reluctant to move forward with the merger. These sources say that IPF, with the largest staff of the three groups, worries that it could lose some of its power by joining a larger framework. For APN, one of the main problems would be the question of how to maintain ties with its Israeli mother ship, Peace Now. And for Brit Tzedek, a significant issue would be maintaining the group’s identity when joining with two older and more established organizations.
Some participants are also wondering whether a unified structure would end up weakening the influence of the organizations involved. “Is one voice better than many voices?” asked one of the activists involved, pointing to the fact that one joint group might be less visible on Capitol Hill than several smaller ones.
The new project has yet to be given a formal name. Those involved refer to it in jest as the “J Street Project.” This is a Washington insider’s joke referencing the fact that there is no J in the city’s alphabetical street grid, and playing off the name of the Republican plan to change the political face of the lobbying industry that is situated on K Street.
This joke also underscores the skepticism with which the new initiative is met by many in the Jewish community, including some of the activists involved in the project. The time that has passed since the initiative was first introduced; the lengthy deliberations within the participating groups, and the difficulty in raising the core sum needed to launch the project, all have fed this sense of skepticism about the project’s future. One reason for the delays is the fact that talks with donors were practically put on hold until the three groups are able to come to a decision on the proposed merger.
The project got off to a difficult start after being initially portrayed as a challenge to Aipac. Ever since, those involved in the initiative make it a point not to talk about Aipac. They also avoid positioning themselves as a counterweight to what is seen as the hawkish pro-Israel lobby.
Yet in private conversations, the issue of serving as a dovish balance to Aipac is discussed frequently. One activist involved in the initiative spoke of the need to send Congress a message that “there are other voices in the community” and that lawmakers “don’t have to automatically support unnecessary resolutions” about Israel. Another activist said that many in the Jewish community “are dying” to present an alternative to Aipac on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the same time, all those involved stressed their strong appreciation for Aipac’s role in supporting and strengthening Israel. They made clear that the new group — if and when created — would not aim to challenge or replace Aipac as the leading pro-Israel lobby.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.