Saturday, October 31, 2009

Moderate Jewish lobbyist causes stir

Gen. James L. Jones, President Obama's national security adviser, was an important guest at a conference on Tuesday.

The tensions and sharp disagreements that have ripened among many American Jews over President Obama’s approach to Middle East issues were on public display here this week as a fledgling Jewish group held its first convention.

Mr. Obama sent his top national security aide to the convention of the group, known as J Street, but the Israeli ambassador pointedly stayed home. Some members of Congress agreed to be part of the event, only to withdraw their support in the face of criticism from their own political backers.

That's showing backbone: back out on being criticized.

J Street has only a small fraction of the resources and membership of more established pro-Israel groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and it remains unclear how potent it will be in presenting itself as an alternative. Nonetheless, it has had great success in quickly becoming a major reference point in the complicated debate over President Obama’s Middle East policy as well as the more emotional issue of the appropriate role for American Jews in supporting Israel.

Well, it has already become a player, a major reference point; that's quite something.

While opinions in the Jewish community have never been uniform or monolithic, several analysts, elected officials and pollsters said the debate over Mr. Obama’s approach to Israel and its neighbors has sharpened boundaries between those who strongly support him and those who have grown more wary.

Not monolithic? C'mon.

J Street has tried to position itself as a counterweight to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which J Street supporters say require the United States to support the Israeli government too reflexively.

Too? No need for the qualifier: the lobby requires unquestioned support.

Many of its critics say that J Street, by presenting itself as an American Jewish pro-Israel group that believes that Mr. Obama should be free to disagree with the Israeli government, is harmful to Israel’s long-term interests and encourages obduracy in its Arab adversaries.

That's an old tactic: discourgae, even stifle, dissent by charging not simply disloyalty but encouragement of, even tacit support for, the enemy.

The Congressional members who reversed themselves asked that their names be withdrawn after some opponents of J Street asserted that supporting the group was not in Israel’s best interests.

And who determines what that is? American Jews? The Israeli government?

Some Israeli officials have said privately that they do not want to offend Aipac and its members who have loyally supported the Israeli government for years. Ambassador Oren said in an interview that he declined to attend because of concerns “about several of J Street’s policies that may impair Israeli interests.” He said that he was not ordered by the Israeli government to skip the conference but that the government shared those concerns.

Even Israeli officials are intimidated by Aipac. What would Aipac do? Stop supporting Israel? Support the opposition?

The issue of how much any American administration should press an Israeli government to make concessions for peace is at the heart of delicate and long-unresolved questions among American Jews. At the least, say the traditional supporters of Israel, any disagreements should not be aired publicly.

J Street officials have said one of their principal beliefs is that any administration, Mr. Obama’s included, should have some room to disagree with Israel’s government in order to become a more effective broker in the region.

A senior administration official said that the president and his advisers were aware of the restiveness caused by the summer’s dispute with Mr. Netanyahu over settlements. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Obama’s stance on settlements was not a drastic departure from longstanding policy and that relations with the Netanyahu government were now excellent.

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