The past week has been a big one for J Street, which bills itself as the home of the pro-Israel pro-Peace lobby in Washington. The organization has taken two major steps that are critical to its success as a lobby. However, it is unclear whether the changes will have the desired effects, especially if the November presidential election goes in favor of Republican Mitt Romney.
J Street's first success this week was to alienate the radical left with its strong opposition to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). In a widely-circulated editorial, J Street's President Jeremy Ben-Ami echoed the sentiments of the mainstream American pro-Israel community in saying that "BDS deepens divisions and fails to promote reconciliation." The editorial was timed to coincide with a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which ultimately nixed divestment in a highly contentious and publicized vote. For its opposition to BDS, J Street came under fire from far left opinion leaders such as MJ Rosenberg and Max Blumenthal, who opined that the organization had caved in to pressure from AIPAC and the Israeli government.
As this blogger has said here, here and here, J Street will need to alienate the far left to have legitimacy in DC and among American Jews. It appears the organization has taken a real step towards doing so in strongly opposing BDS. It took a clear stance on an issue relevant to Israel, and was able to align ideologically with the center of the U.S. Jewish community without compromising its support for progressive values.
The second success is a petition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to oppose the Levy Report's denial that the West Bank is occupied. From an analystical perspective, the actual policy impact the petition will have is dubious. The State Department has already condemned the report which contradicts U.S. policy dating back to the Johnson Administration. In addition, it is highly likely Secretary Clinton will express disapproval of the report during her visit to Israel this weekend regardless of petitions since it is so controversial.
However, J Street's petition campaign is a smart one because it expands the object of the group's pressure from the Congress (where AIPAC overwhelmingly has more clout) to the executive branch. As it is, J Street is considered the Obama administration's "blocking back" in Congress, and J Street's policies overwhelmingly align with those of the Obama administration. It thus makes more sense for the organization to rally support among the administration's base than to focus exclusively on competing with organizations like AIPAC in Congress and alienating Representatives in the process. While the cause of J Street's petition will not significantly be impacted, the shift to a balanced targeting is a smart change.
The key question on both of these developments, of course, is whether they will make a difference for pro-Israel advocacy in Washington. With the presidential election just months away in a struggling economy, J Street's first move if Romney wins is unclear. Under a second Obama administration, J Street may have a role to play, but faces the prospect of a President burned from the settlement issue and largely hands-off with regards to the Middle East (as Allison Good has pointed out). Ultimately, while the shifts are welcome, it remains unclear whether they will be sufficient to vault J Street to a position where it can compete with other major pro-Israel organizations. It may be that these shifts, welcome as they are, will be too little too late.