[DEBATE] : Peace Groups Lose First Major Gaza Challenge On Capitol Hill
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Fri Jan 9 02:52:26 GMT 2009
Peace Groups Lose First Major Gaza Challenge On Capitol Hill
Attempts by Activists To Shape Resolution Come Up Short
By Nathan Guttman
Thu. Jan 08, 2009
Washington — As Israel's military campaign in Gaza entered its second
week, Capitol Hill became the latest battleground where Jewish hawks
and doves are trying to shape the American response to the ongoing
Dovish groups bombarded lawmakers with calls and e-mails in an attempt
to influence the wording of pro-Israel resolutions being shaped in the
House and Senate. The groups' line in the sand on those resolutions
was straightforward: Unless the House and Senate included a call for
an immediate cease-fire, the dovish groups would call on their
supporters to actively oppose them.
For the Jewish peace camp, the first Middle East crisis of the new
Congress and administration was an opportunity to flex its muscles and
show presence on the national scene.
But in the end, they lost.
On January 7, Senate leaders introduced a resolution that only called
for President Bush to "work actively to support a durable,
enforceable, and sustainable cease-fire in Gaza, as soon as possible."
The resolution issued no call for a lifting of the commercial blockade
Israel has imposed on Gaza, which has contributed to widespread
poverty, as part of a cease-fire.
The crisis demonstrated the difficulties facing the Jewish community's
dissenting voices: refusal, even in the moderate sectors of the Jewish
community, to criticize Israel at a time of war; large pockets of
support for Israel's actions; and limited efficacy when faced with the
powerful political clout of establishment Jewish groups.
Activists for the four major dovish Jewish groups — J Street,
Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and the Israel Policy
Forum — had put whatever power they had to sway members of Congress
into adopting what they call a "more nuanced approach" toward the
conflict, one that would express support for Israel, but at the same
time call for an international effort to end military operations.
In a January 5 memo to congressional offices, APN even directly took
on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington's
legendary pro-Israel lobby. "Unfortunately," the APN memo stated,
Aipac's position "fails to mention any need to work to end the
"This approach is regrettable," APN added.
The IPF held meetings with Hill staffers, stressing the need to think
beyond the issue of Israel's right of self-defense. "I try to put
things in context, to show that it is not black and white," said M.J.
Rosenberg, director of the group's Washington Policy Center. "It is
very dangerous when members of Congress see the Jewish community
speaking in one voice. They are offended by it."
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, which focuses more on grass-roots operations,
put out an action alert urging supporters to phone their
representatives and ask for their support in an immediate cease-fire.
"The U.S. must support conflict resolution, not escalation," the alert
read. Diane Balser, executive director of Brit Tzedek, said the calls
also served as a reminder to lawmakers "that there is a new
administration that has pledged itself to diplomacy."
In Los Angeles, a group of liberal Jewish activists wrote a letter to
the local Jewish paper, arguing that Israel is practicing its right of
self-defense in a manner that is "ill-advised and morally
questionable, causing considerable loss of life and grave damage."
And J Street, which became a lightning rod for criticism from other
pro-Israel activists, alerted its nearly 100,000 online supporters to
sign a memo sent to Capitol Hill and to make phone calls to their
representatives. The J Street memo states that "military action that
is seen to be disproportionate to the threat and escalatory in nature
will prove to be counterproductive."
The group lists seven members of Congress who issued statements
supportive of a quick halt to hostilities — though not necessarily an
immediate cease-fire, as J Street is pressing for. Most were among 41
members and candidates who had received funds from J Street's
political action committee during this election cycle.
Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak told the Forward he agreed
with J Street's broad position that the United States must take a more
active role in brokering a halt to hostilities in the region.
"The military will stop a problem, but it's not going to fix it," said
Sestak, a retired admiral. The "comprehensive diplomatic approach
that's needed there is J Street's overarching point — that at the end
of the day, war is not going to give Israel greater security."
Still, as the Forward went to press, it was not clear that J Street's
financial support was always influential. Many of the other members of
the endorsed group remained silent, and at least one, Democratic
Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, issued a statement more in line with
Aipac's appeal than with J Street's.
Aipac has listed on its Web site more than 100 members of Congress and
elected officials who came out with statements expressing
unconditional support for Israel's actions.
The difficulty in getting the dovish message through on Capitol Hill
became apparent as the House and Senate moved forward on formulating
their pro-Israel resolutions. These resolutions have long been a
congressional tradition and are passed, with the support of the
pro-Israel lobby, whenever Israel reaches a military or diplomatic
Attempts to include a direct call for an immediate cease-fire in the
House resolution also seemed to be falling short as preparations
reached their final stage. California Democrat Howard Berman, chair of
the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Forward on January 6
that the resolution "supports Israel and the peace process."
Berman, whose aides were in charge of writing the resolution, said the
important message is that any agreement will ensure that the
cease-fire is durable and sustainable. "We don't want to see what
happened in Lebanon happening here," Berman said, referring to the
2006 cease-fire that was sponsored by the United Nations and halted
combat between Israel and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah. It did
not succeed in preventing Hezbollah from regrouping and rearming.
For dovish Jewish groups, Congress was only one front of the battle.
The other, and not less challenging, was the front within the Jewish
community itself. Activists with J Street were surprised by the
negative reactions to their call for cease-fire, especially that of
the Reform movement's leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who argued in a
Forward opinion column January 9 that "J Street got it very wrong."
Since Yoffie comes from the heart of the liberal-dovish stream in
which J Street swims, his criticism seemed more hurtful than that of
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director, issued a lengthy
response to Yoffie's critique and later said he was "always happy to
have a disagreement with my best friends."
But anger over J Street's statement did not stop with Yoffie. Though
they were unwilling to go on the record, officials from some of the
other dovish groups voiced fury with Ben-Ami. "He should have his head
handed to him," one said, fuming.
In an hour-long conference call January 5, leaders of the Jewish
dovish groups tried to coordinate their message and iron out any
differences. Attempting to create a broader coalition, the groups were
joined by representatives of two non-Jewish organizations that support
a two-state solution: the Arab American Institute and Churches for
Middle East Peace. These organizations, while critical of Israel's
military operation, oppose Hamas rule in Gaza.
In contrast to such organizations as StandWithUs, one tactic the
dovish groups are not pursuing is street demonstrations. That has been
left to anti-war and anti-Zionist groups much further to their left.
The Answer Coalition, an organization that was behind many of the
demonstrations against the Iraq War and that has campaigned against
American intervention in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America,
leads most of those groups.
With reporting by Anthony Weiss.
Thu. Jan 08, 2009
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