It is a tradition of Washington advocacy conferences: After hearing from experts, debating with activists and getting pumped up — it’s time for participants to take their message to Capitol Hill.
This morning, J Street conference participants mounted the buses and left for more than 200 advocacy meetings in congressional offices. Some will get to meet their representatives, while others will sit with staff members and convey to them the J Street message.
And this message is one that should be easy to swallow, at least for most Democrats.
J Street chose to focus its lobbying drive on an issue far from controversy and close to the pro-Israel consensus — foreign aid. Activists asked their representatives to sign on to a letter authored by Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Anna Eshoo from California. The letter expresses support for continuing foreign aid to Israel at its current level, as well as continuing U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
The part relating to aid to Israel is an easy sell. For years AIPAC has laid the groundwork, and most lawmakers know they’ll get in trouble with constituents if they touch the $3 billion aid package. Still, the recent rise of fiscal conservative deficit-busting Republicans in Congress did bring about questions about aid for Israel. These questions are coming from the margins (namely Senator Rand Paul and his father, Rep. Ron Paul) but any discussion about this issue causes a lot of uneasiness in the pro-Israel camp.
Aid to Palestinians, on the other hand, is more of a political issue. The new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has always been suspicious about U.S. taxpayer dollars going to the Palestinian Authority, and could lead a drive to cut or limit aid. But with the Abbas-Fayyad government in place, even Republicans are a bit easier with funding the P.A.
J Street’s lobbying agenda lacks any specific legislation or resolution regarding the Middle East peace process. While the group is publicly calling on the Obama administration to put out its own peace plan and despite its wish to see the administration lean harder on Israel on the settlement issue, lawmakers will not be asked for any specific steps to promote this agenda. The reason: A wish to highlight the group’s centrist credentials in Congress and the feeling that a leftist agenda would alienate too many lawmakers.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.
Taking It to the Hill