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New Israel Lobby Makes Picks

In its first entrance into the electoral fray, a dovish new pro-Israel group has endorsed five congressional hopefuls and a pair of incumbents.

PICKS: Rep. Steve Cohen (top), a Democrat from Tennessee, and Rep. Charles Boustany (bottom), a Republican from Louisiana, were among the political picks of the new J Street project.

The slate, including one Republican and six Democrats, was announced Monday, June 16, by a political action committee associated with the nascent J Street project. Leaders of the group say they intend to bolster rising politicians who will back an aggressive diplomatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“J Street was founded on the premise that there is a crying need for a new voice in American politics to support a strong, sensible pro-Israel policy based on peace, diplomacy and conflict resolution,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of both J Street and JStreetPAC, on a conference call announcing the endorsements.

Since bursting onto the political scene this past spring, J Street — the group’s name is a riff on Washington’s lobbying corridor K Street — has drawn considerable attention by billing itself as a left-leaning alternative to Washington’s established pro-Israel behemoth, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But with its first round of endorsements, J Street settled on liberal politicians who are also comfortable within the orbit of Aipac, a nonpartisan group that does not endorse candidates.

“I don’t see J Street and Aipac as being antithetical in any way,” said Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a first-term congressman who traveled to Israel with Aipac last summer and made it onto JStreetPAC’s list. Speaking to the Forward minutes before the June 16 announcement, Cohen characterized himself as an “independent thinker” who may have differences with both groups on specific issues.

J Street also endorsed Rep. Charles Boustany, an Arab American Republican lawmaker from Louisiana who is finishing his second term in Congress, as well as five Democratic congressional hopefuls: Donna Edwards, who is running in Maryland’s Fourth District; Darcy Burner from Washington’s Eighth; Debbie Halvorson from Illinois’s 11th; Mary Jo Kilroy from Ohio’s 15th, and Dennis Shulman from New Jersey’s Fifth. The only Jews on the list are Cohen and Shulman, who is a Reform rabbi.

The endorsed challengers, all of whom are in tight races and taking in money from a variety of left-leaning groups, were selected through interviews, according to Ben-Ami. In total, J Street plans to make 30 to 40 congressional endorsements over the course of the summer. Individual supporters of the project will be able to send donations directly to the various candidates through JStreetPAC’s Web site, while the PAC itself will raise funds on behalf of a half-dozen candidates who will be selected, based on competitiveness, as the November election approaches.

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