By James M. Wall
Start your search with the three-day J Street Conference, “Driving Change: Securing Peace”, which began Sunday night in Washington, DC. More then 1200 are expected to attend.
Obama’s National Security Advisor, retired United States Marine Corps four-star general, James Jones, will be a featured speaker.
On October 15, General Jones delivered the keynote address for the fourth annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), a Washington-based pro-Palestinian organization.
Jones told ATFP the Obama administration was committed “to establishing a Palestinian state and [determined] to move forward with peace talks”, not an earth-shattering promise.
In fact, it is current White House boiler plate. It is not, however, what Jones says, but to whom and where he says it.
In stark contrast to Jones’ friendly outreach, Michael Oren, the American-educated Israeli ambassador to the US, rejected J Street’s invitation. Ha’aretz provides the official Israeli government reasoning:
In response to the question about J Street’s invitation to participate in its conference, the Embassy of Israel has been privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel,” the embassy said in a statement. . . [T]he embassy will send an observer to the conference and will follow its proceedings with interest.
Ambassador Oren will be, to put it boldly, a No-Show.
Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has chosen sides in the battle of DC pro-Israel lobbies. What about President Obama? Within a two week time span, President Obama’s NSA chief spoke to both ATFP and the J Street Conference.
Ambassador Oren was conspicuous by his absence from both events.
These visits by Jones to the enemy camp is a blow to the prestige of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has reason to worry about J Street’s emergence as the new kid on the pro-Israel DC lobbying front.
AIPAC has been an Israeli power base in Washington for 45 years.
So effectively has AIPAC taken control of the US Congress, that it is rare to find a Congressman or Senator who dares oppose an AIPAC-sponsored resolution favorable to Israel or any legislation not blessed by the reigning political party in Tel Aviv.
Now, with the appearance of the 18 month old J Street lobby, AIPAC’s dominance is threatened. J Street is still small, but it is young and determined to break AIPAC’s grip on American politics.
Since lobbying is a political game, J Street is also cautious. Already it has drawn fire from its own political left for yielding to pressure from political right bloggers, operating under AIPAC instructions.
The pressure led J Street to cancel a poetry session after Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb posted a video in which poet Josh Healey, a scheduled participant, talks about how, for his friends, “Anne Frank is Matthew Shepard” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz.” For AIPAC, any parallel drawn to the Holocaust is verboten, even when applied to currrent human rights violations.
Healey’s response to J Street’s capitulation: “If you’re trying to be an alternative to AIPAC, don’t behave like AIPAC”.
Goldfarb’s campaign against J Street overreached when he tried to smear Conference participant, Helene Cobban, the former Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent. Wrong target and wrong format.
Goldfarb assumed J Street would remove her from the Conference after he posted this blog quote, in which Cobban draws a parallel between Israel’s “security” walls inside the West Bank and Gaza, and German concentration camp prison walls:
Cobban is prone to her own Holocaust metaphors when talking about Israel. “When you see the Wall, especially the places where it goes anywhere near built-up Palestinian areas and is studded with looming concrete watch-towers, the overwhelming image that might come to your mind, as it does to mine, is that of the fence-and-watchtower system around a concentration camp.”
According to Tikun Olam blogger Richard Silverstein, the poetry segment of the Conference is on the “official” program, and thus under the control of J Street.
The bloggers’ panel, which will include both Cobban and Silverstein, is held in connection with the Conference, but is not part of the “official” program.
J Street’s leaders are, after all, Jewish in their orientation and they are trying to build for the future from a young Jewish constituency. They are well aware of the Zionist linguistic ground rules on all matters even remotely related to the Holocaust, ground rules, of course, which were established decades ago.
Nor will Cobban’s Holocaust reference, quite appropriate in context, prevent the “bloggers panel” from enjoying a standing room response from conference attendees.
Eighteen months after its creation, J Street’s email list now exceeds 100,000. With that list and other fund raising efforts, J Street has raised more than $600,000 for congressional candidates who “share our values”, as J Street Political Director Issac Luria told the Christian Century’s Amy Frykholm.
That total is still far less than the amount that pours annually into AIPAC’s budget. but Luria believes that J Street’s numbers will increase, thanks to the “new media” which has already “changed the political landscape:” The internet-driven Howard Dean presidential campaign, the liberal MoveOn organization, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.
AIPAC and its Washington allies are fighting back.
James Besser, Washington Correspondent for the Jewish Week, describes how the conservative Weekly Standard reacted when 160 members of Congress agreed to serve on J Street’s “host committee” for the event’s gala dinner.
Those 160 members came “under intense pressure to withdraw”. The Standard reported that 10 already have, “including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats.”
When AIPAC favorite Schumer withdraws from anything, the flock usually follows. Expect more than 10 to blame poor staff work and take their names off the risky gala program.
AIPAC has ruled the Washington lobby roost since its founding in 1964. Prior to the founding, its precursor organization was laying the groundwork as a threatening and effective attack dog.
According to UCLA scholar Steven Spiegel’s The Other Israel- Arab Conflict:
The tension between the Eisenhower administration and Israeli supporters were so acute that there were rumors (unfounded as it turned out) that the administration would investigate the American Zionist Council. Therefore, an independent lobbying group was formed within the auspices of the American Zionist Committee.
AIPAC’s precursor organization also followed the lobby maxim: Develop friendly contacts within the government.
In Foreign Agents: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee from the 1963 Fulbright Hearings to the 2005 Episionage Scandal (IRMEP), Grant F. Smith uncovered this fascinating historical item in the transcript of the “US Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation into the Activities of Agents of Foreign Principals in the United States:”
Fred Scriber, a friendly US Underseretary of Treasury, confidentially recommended dring a 1959 meeting with key Zionist organizations operating in the US that they needed to restructure themselves in order to avoid problems with the Eisenhower Administration, the IRS, and the US Department of Justice.
AIPAC was a 1964 organizational spin off from the American Zionist Council, after Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, convened hearings on the use of Israeli funds by the American Zionist Council. in US politics,.
But before Senator Fulbright, there was President John F. Kennedy.
Jeff Gates writes in the Iranian website, Payvand, that in June, 1963, President Kennedy wrote a series of angry letters to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, demanding what Israel now demands of Iran: International inspections of its nuclear facilities.
The key difference between the current US demand that Iran reveal any nuclear weapons development, was that in 1963
Kennedy knew for certain that Israel, while portraying itself a friend and ally, repeatedly lied to Kennedy about its nuclear weapons development at the Dimona reactor in the Negev Desert.
Best estimates point to sometime between 1962 and 1964 when Israel produced its first weapon in what is now [in 2009] a vast nuclear arsenal estimated at 200-400 warheads. Kennedy’s letter to Ben-Gurion was anything but friendly.
Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were members of a dying presidential breed: They not only resisted Israeli pressure, they did so aggressively.
Under Lyndon Johnson, the executive branch turned dramatically in favor of Israel. Harsh demands of Israeli leaders disappeared. The Dimona reactor in the Negev Desert, by unofficial agreement, became a permanent secret which remains secret to this day, even as the US demands transparency from Iran.
A pattern was set. When Israel attacked the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, killing 34 Americans, the Johnson administration refused to prosecute the guilty parties and made no effort to seek justice for the victims.
AIPAC was created as a domestic non-profit agency, which was separated from foreign funding of US political campaigns. The assignment handed to AIPAC was to build a private donor base in the US and a public donor base in the US Congress.
AIPAC was born during the Cold War. Israel was sold to the American public as a militant outpost against the Soviet Union. It was an easy sell, even to politicians who had not yet been treated to an all expenses trip to Tel Aviv.
The founder of AIPAC was Isaiah L. “Si” Kenan who served as AIPAC ‘s executive director and editor of the newsletter, the Near East Report, until his retirement in 1974.
According to Grant Smith, Kenen initially persuaded Congress to provide $15 million to Israel, despite “robust” State Department opposition.
That State Department “robust” opposition soon faded. By 1973, Kenan claimed he had boosted US aid to Israel to $1 billion a year. At the time of his death in 1988, US aid to Israel exceeded $3 billion a year, the highest amount of US aid given to any country. That same figure has been supplemented annually by loans forgiven, and special needs as requested.
The American tax-paying public–at least those who rely on the MSM (Main Stream Media) for information on money and politics–has remained surprisingly indifferent to the impact of AIPAC’s influence on US foreign policy.
That same public has also remained blissfully ignorant about J Street, an emerging voice of a competing “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. That veil of ignorance could be lifted, if ever so briefly, during this week’s J Street national meeting in Washington.
#####First Update Monday########
This just in from Helen Cobban’s blog:
Our decidedly “off-Broadway” blogger’s panel took place at noon today, tucked into something slightly larger than a broom closet in the bowels of J Street’s conference hotel. There were about ten of us on the panel and three additional panelists participating remotely, via the craziest kind of phone/Skype connections.
Audience people (who also included some really cool people like Australian-Jewish blogger Antony Lowenstein) were literally pasted to the walls and would have hung from rafters had there been rafters.
At one point J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami put in a small cameo appearance at the back of the audience. I believe he was not there when blogging superstars like Phil Weiss and Max Blumenthal were deciding whether to give J Street one thumb’s-up, one and a half, or two.
Anyway, bottom line, the panel was an independent activity. J Street did not endorse the views expressed there, and we weren’t obliged to line up like clockwork behind all of J Street’s positions, either. But all in all, huge kudos to J Street for embracing the idea of a free-speech forum like this.
*****Second Update Tuesday*****
In his welcoming address to the conference, Jeremy Ben Ami made it quite clear that J Street focuses on “a love of Israel and concern for its future”. Here is a sample:
“. . . .Substantively, of course, we’re here because we care so deeply about changing the course of events in the Middle East. Because we know the path we are on – of endless conflict, failure to compromise, terror and bloodshed – leads only to hopelessness and despair.
We rally tonight around this simple premise: that the security and very future of the Jewish, democratic homeland in Israel is at risk without an end to the conflict and to the occupation of the Palestinian people.
The work begun in the generations before ours to build a nation in the image of our people to be the home of our people will only be complete when Israel has defined borders, a Palestinian state has been established next door and the rest of the region and the world recognizes Israel and accepts its existence.
Our presence here in such numbers and with such energy demonstrates the powerful base of political support ready to back active pursuit and achievement of comprehensive, regional peace in the Middle East – as an urgent priority not a distant, almost meaningless, aspiration.
We do not want the United States to simply be a passive facilitator of fruitless negotiation. No – as President Obama has said, we have had enough talking about talking. We want action and we want resolution. We want the United States and the international community actively at the table – and we want this conflict to end.
As I hope has been clear in the early stages of the conversation tonight – while this movement is welcoming to all who seek peace, justice and an end to the conflict – it is rooted in a love of Israel and concern for its future. . . .”