What's Wrong With J Street?

J Street mixes its views on Israel with domestic party politics, and now, before midterm elections this is not the time to escalate partisan rhetoric around a two-state solution.

J Street, the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby, ran its first television commercial last week in the United States. Watching the ad online (it can be viewed via a link on my own organization's website, www.rethinkme.org) confirmed my worst suspicions about this new organization, which likes to portray itself as the "real voice" of the mainstream American Jewish community.

The commercial makes J Street's particular bias quite obvious. It begins with overt political partisanship that seems to focus more on personalities than policies: "While chaos and violence in the Middle East grow, America's chorus of 'no' ignores reality." We see photos and hear remarks by the likes of Joe Lieberman, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Alan Dershowitz, Mike Pence and other spawn of Satan (i.e., conservatives, Republicans and an ex-Democrat ), before an announcer's voice asks: "Do they [Limbaugh & company] speak for you ... or do they?" - at which point the swelling music changes from discordant to melodic, as an image of President Barack Obama appears, intoning the mantra of "two states living side by side in peace and security."

U.S. President Barack Obama

Photos of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus also appear on-screen, accompanied by the words, "Say 'yes' to American leadership. Join the community of 'yes.'" So "American leadership" in the Middle East is personified by the president, the secretary of state and the new commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Why is Gen. Petraeus there at all? Could it be related to his Senate testimony in March, after which he became associated with the idea that America's national interest is imperiled by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian impasse? Perhaps it's because of his mainstream popularity as the only American - military or civilian - since the first Gulf War with a proven track record of successful leadership in the Middle East. After all, neither Obama nor Clinton, after a year and a half of speeches, travel and endless meetings, have much to show for all their efforts so far in the region.

This commercial is a classic Democratic campaign ad, pitting the evil Republicans ("the chorus of 'no'" ) against the good guys, the Democrats ("the community of 'yes'" ). For the purposes of the ad, the general has been promoted to the rank of honorary Democrat, despite his reputed Republican voter registration.

There is nothing wrong with having another Jewish pro-two-state-solution organization at work. We already have, among others, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum (newly merged with Middle East Progress ) - both reputable and serious organizations. But J Street seems different in three important regards.

First, it is an overtly Democratic Party organization. JStreetPAC, its political action committee, endorsed and distributed campaign contributions to 41 candidates in 2008: 39 Democrats and only two Republicans. In 2010 it has endorsed 58 candidates: 57 Democrats and one Republican. Most other pro-Israel PACs split their donations more evenly between the two major parties.

J Street's founding president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has an impressive resume, with much of his career spent in the world of Democratic politics. He worked for Bill Clinton, both in his first presidential campaign and in the White House. He has worked for other Democratic candidates, and is politically connected in the upper echelons of the party, which appears to be his comfort zone.

Second, J Street is specifically an Obama support group, playing the part of a cheering section for the president to such an extent that the organization could be renamed "Jews for Obama." It has consistently supported his approach to the Middle East even when most commentators who support a two-state solution have criticized his administration's tactics and timing. Through the last year and a half of White House bumbling and fumbling over the settlement freeze, J Street never once criticized Obama, Mitchell, Clinton or the entire strategy of talking tough to Israel, coupled with toothless threats and inept performance.

Unlike the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, J Street will not defend Israel unconditionally. Apparently, however, J Street will defend Obama unconditionally.

Third, the main problem here is that J Street tries to turn peace in the Middle East into a proprietary issue of the Democrats, while it vilifies the Republicans as the enemies of peace. That might be a good strategy for electing Democrats, though I doubt it, but it is not a good strategy for building broad national support for a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Most pollsters and pundits predict large gains for the Republicans in the midterm elections this November. Bipartisan support for the president's Middle East peace-making efforts will therefore become even more important. This summer seems like precisely the wrong time to escalate partisan rhetoric around a two-state solution.

Those who want to see a resolution that works both for Israelis and Palestinians are already divided enough regarding Gaza, Hamas, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, prisoner exchanges, etc. And those divisions do not necessarily split along party lines. Obama, like every other well-meaning Democratic or Republican president who tackles the Middle East, will get some things right and others wrong. An organization that is supposedly "pro-Israel and pro-peace" should stick with those two allegiances: Israel and peace. Being "pro-Obama" is something else.

So what's wrong with J Street? It mixes up its views on the issues with domestic party politics. Just as barriers between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East need to be removed, barriers regarding the future of Israel/Palestine should not be erected between Democrats and Republicans.


Michael Lame founded Re-Think the Middle East, which is intended to encourage new thinking about the region's future.