What ticked off Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) so much about J Street's position on a pending UN resolution slamming Israel's settlements policies that he decided to break ties with the pro-peace process group?
According to sources in the group, J Street “reluctantly” called on the Obama administration not to veto a pending UN resolution labeling Israel's settlements in both the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem “illegal” and condemning activities “aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the territory.”
That's a first for the group, and it touched on one of the givens of pro-Israel activism – that all UN action on the issue is hopelessly biased and should be rejected by Washington, which partially explains the lawmaker's angry reaction. Administrations since Carter have termed settlement activity illegitimate. But illegal? A red flag.
What Ackerman said in a statement today:
"After learning of J Street’s current public call for the Obama Administration to not veto a prospective U.N. Security Council resolution that, under the rubric of concern about settlement activity, would effectively and unjustly place the whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process on Israel, and -- critically -- would give fresh and powerful impetus to the effort to internationally isolate and delegitimize Israel, I’ve come to the conclusion that J Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated," Ackerman said in his statement. "The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the U.N. Security Council is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out. America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J Street ain’t it."
I'm also guessing that Ackerman, under persistent fire for accepting the group's endorsement, may have been looking for an opportunity to break with J Street. As JTA's Ron Kampeas pointed out, he's Jewish, he's a New Yorker - and "his pro-Israel record is considered second to none."
That made him a great catch for J Street - and made knocking him off the J Street reservation a priority for opponents.
The last thing Ackerman wants is a strong challenge from the Jewish right in the next election – which could happen, given how J Street has become such a lightning rod in Jewish politics.
J Street responded by saying it “deeply regrets and objects to Rep. Gary Ackerman’s statement today. It reflects a misunderstanding of J Street’s position and of the UN Resolution in question.”
Kampeas has the full exchange between J Street and Ackerman on his blog.
As a J Street official explained to me earlier today, the group does not favor UN criticism of Israel and it doesn't endorse the resolution. But Israel's refusal to extend its settlement freeze and the failure of Obama administration efforts to restart the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian talks made it inevitable the Palestinians would see UN redress.
J Street does “not 'support' UN condemnation of Israel or endorse this resolution,” according to the group's statement in response to Ackerman. “ We have urged the United States to consider withholding its veto from a resolution criticizing Israeli settlement activity – a resolution that closely tracks the policy of the United States under the last eight administrations.”
But that's a mighty fine needle to thread in an environment in which bringing the UN into the debate is like waving a giant red cape in front of pro-Israel forces.
What will be interesting – and critical for J Street – is whether other endorsees will follow his lead. I suspect there won't be any other major defections.
But today's controversy certainly won't help J Street accomplish one of its primary missions on Capitol Hill – encouraging shy lawmakers who may support J Street's view of the region but fear the might of the pro-Israel lobby to speak out more forcefully.
And it won't instill confidence in their promise to provide a measure of political protection for those lawmakers from the inevitable attacks their J Street connection will trigger.
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