Last month’s launch of J Street marks the culmination of a two-decades-old evolution within the pro-Israel community in the US. J Street, which defines itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel and pro-peace movement”, states that it was founded “to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts peacefully and diplomatically… [and] support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East.” In what is referred to as their “family of organisations”, J Street will include a lobbying arm that will advocate for peace on Capitol Hill, and an “unconnected” political action committee that will endorse pro-peace candidates for public office.
While the hardline positions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) have long defined pro-Israel politics in Washington, in reality, American Jewish opinion has never been monolithic. Aipac has always been opposed by those in the Jewish community who have argued for a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
In the 1970s, for example, a group called Breira was formed by young Jewish peace activists. While an early Zionist slogan was “ain breira” (“there is no alternative”), the name this group gave itself affirmed there was an “alternative” – Breira. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the formation of the Peace Now movement in Israel, Americans for Peace Now was formed in the US. It was joined by other liberal efforts, including Project Nishma and the Israel Policy Forum.
With the signing of the Oslo Accords, and the commitment of the Yitzhak Rabin administration to a negotiated peace with the PLO, Aipac was challenged as never before. Mr Rabin himself made a point of criticising Aipac’s obstructionism, and instead called on American Jews to support the peace process his government had embraced.
Likud, out of power but seeking to undercut peace efforts, began to mobilise hardline groups to challenge the Labour government’s policies in Washington. With the election of a Republican Congress in 1994, a coalition of Likud, the anti-peace groups and the Republican leadership in Congress formed a powerful bloc that became an obstacle to efforts to move the peace process forward.
The Clinton administration, seeking to empower peacemakers not only in the Middle East but also here in the US, worked to strengthen the role of both Arab-Americans and American-Jews who supported peace. For example, instead of merely inviting the old-line Aipac leadership to the White House for meetings, the Clinton administration made a point of including the new pro-peace groups as well.
For the next decade, the Aipac resumed its normal course of providing begrudging support for peace when a Labour government was in office, while taking a harder line when Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon were in office. Meanwhile, the pro-peace groups continued to slowly develop their base of support.
In polls of Arab-Americans and American-Jews during the past decade, we found a remarkable convergence of views, with majorities in both communities supporting a two-state solution, opposing violence and terrorism, opposing the building of settlements, supporting a negotiated solution to a shared Jerusalem, and a more balanced US approach to peacemaking.
Still, Aipac ruled the roost, working largely uncontested on Capitol Hill, though a few efforts by Arab-American and American-Jewish peace groups have been successful in securing support from members of Congress for a more nuanced approach to some legislation.
Now, with the launch of J Street, this development in the Jewish community has taken institutional form. Its appearance on the scene is both early and late: early, in that it is quite new and, therefore, it is too soon to measure its impact; and late, in that the challenges now confronting the peace process are so much greater than they were even a decade ago.
Still, J Street is off to a promising start. It has secured the co-operation of the major groups that have played a leading role on peace issues over the last 15 years. It has brought together an impressive roster of advisers, and it has generated a strong positive response from the American-Jewish community. Moreover, some members of Congress have been enthusiastic in welcoming J Street.
Even at this late date, it cannot be overstated how important this new development can be, and how significant the impact it can have on the policy debate in the US.
We have always known that there was an internal debate in Israel when it came to peace issues, and have long lamented the absence of a serious debate on Israeli-Palestinian issues in America. Even Joe Leiberman, when he was running for vice president, at one point noted how it was easier to have a debate on the fate of Jerusalem in the Knesset than it was in the US Senate.
It is this that must change, and it is this that J Street, working with others, may now help to change.
It was this need for broader debate that was reflected in Barack Obama’s remarks last February to Jewish leaders in Cleveland, when he noted: “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you’re anti-Israel … that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.
“If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”
Though late in the game, an “honest dialogue” is sorely needed, and can still make a valuable contribution to peace.
Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.