Maneuvering in advance of next week's first-ever national conference by J Street – the pro-Israel, pro-peace process lobby and political action committee -is getting nastier by the day. And it seems to me the stakes are growing.
At issue: will J Street be able to successfully position itself as a mainstreampro-Israel group, but one that sometimes challenges the positions of the Israeli government and major Jewish groups here? Will it succeed in is mission of providing “cover” for pro-Israel lawmakers that don't particularly like AIPAC positions, but don't want to risk going to war with the pro-Israel lobby?
While J Street has done remarkably well for an upstart, 18-month old group, it's next week's Washington conference and what comes next that will tell the tale.
Last week I wrote about one big challenge J Street faces: a natural constituency that is simply not as involved in pro-Israel matters and not as committed to activism as the narrowly focused, passionately committed AIPAC base.
I don't, by the way, agree with those who say that means J Street appeals only to Jews who don't care about Israel. Sorry, not permanently placing Israel at the top of your list of political priorities and not practicing single-issue politics are not the same as not caring.
But there are other problems the group has to overcome.
Its opponents are now engaged in a focused, bare-knuckle effort to dissuade mainstream politicians from participating in its upcoming national conference. The Weekly Standard has been leading the charge, and this week it claimed 10 lawmakers have already “bailed on J Street after learning that, contrary to their promotional materials, they are not a pro-Israel group.”
If many more pull their names off the J Street rolls, it will create an image of toxicity that will be hard for the group to shake.
What makes these attacks so insidious, from J Street's point of view, is that the claim affiliation with J Street could be radioactive because it is “not pro-Israel” is sufficient for many; no evidence is required. When top campaign donors call and sound the alarms, with all that implies, many politicians will act reflexively, without probing the accuracy of the charges against the new group.
It seems to me that J Street has to counter that kind of allegation by very carefully tempering its rhetoric, by crafting positions that cannot be depicted as aiding Israel's enemies and by watching who it chooses as coalition partners and invites to its events.
At the same time, it can't afford to be seen as backing down from its principles – because its core supporters won't stand for it and because opponents will use it as evidence their attacks are working.
Ultimately, J street's success will depend on the politicians it helps get elected – it's made a good start on this – and on making lawmakers already in power feel confident J Street will provide them with political cover when they take positions that don't agree with the big pro-Israel groups. That will be a lot harder.
The test won't be the Rep. Lois Capps and Rep. Steve Cohens, who already support J Street positions; it will be the mass of lawmakers in the middle for whom Israel isn't a top issue, but who have traditionally been willing to go along with the pro-Israel establishment to avoid political tsuris.
What was clear 18 months ago when its creation unleashed a torrent of criticism and is clearer today is that J Street's enemies are galvanized, worried and experienced in rough-and-tumble politics. J Street's leaders have to be extraordinarily skillful; every statement, every quote to the press, every meeting they hold will be examined through a microscope with those eager to prove their point that the group is off the pro-Israel reservation.
The target of that opposition won't be potential J Street donors, but the politicians whose trust J Street desperately needs.
That's why J Street's efforts to hold on to the more than 150 members of Congress who have signed onto a “host committee” for next week's conference and who have not already backed out is so important – and why opponents are making an all-out push to get more to jump the J Street ship.
As I said, it's going to be a critical period for the new group.
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