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J Street Challenges AIPAC Over Flotilla Letter

Relatedly, senators are inundated with mail

Marc Tracy
June 16, 2010

J Street has not openly warred with AIPAC—the more conservative Israel group whose dominance J Street was partly founded to counterbalance—in awhile. As far as energy sanctions against Iran are concerned, the two groups have actually been on the same team (which has not necessarily been the Obama administration’s team). But now, a letter AIPAC is circulating for signatures is drawing a direct challenge from the newer, smaller, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” outfit.

The AIPAC letter calls for U.S. support for Israel in the face of international condemnations of the flotilla incident and calls for an international probe. “Israeli forces used necessary force as an act of self-defense and of last resort,” it argues.

“These letters,” responds J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, “have been drafted primarily for domestic political consumption rather than to advance the U.S. interest in peace and security in the Middle East.” (I received his letter in a press release, but haven’t seen it online yet; I’ll post it after the jump.) “J Street urges members of Congress to seek changes to the letters currently circulating before signing—or to write their own.” Among other things, Ben-Ami argues (in—what else?—a letter to legislators), the other letters do not sufficiently recognize the suffering of Gazans.

A J Street spokesperson clarified for me yesterday evening that the “letters” Ben-Ami refers to are the AIPAC one in the House, which has been lead-signed by Reps. Gary Peters (D-Michigan) and Ted Poe (R-Texas); and the one signed by Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), which urges the State Department to put IHH, the Turkish charity behind the flotilla, on the official U.S. terrorist list. I’ve received a letter from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations urging senators to sign on to that one.

Now you know why your congressperson didn’t answer that letter you sent them about the pothole on your block: They get quite a few!

After the jump, J Street’s letter.

The Honorable XXX
XXX House Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Representative XXX,
J Street – the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby – is not supporting sign-on letters to the President now circulating in the [House/Senate] regarding the Gaza flotilla. As is far too often the case, these letters have been drafted primarily for domestic political consumption rather than to advance the U.S. interest in peace and security in the Middle East.
With tensions in the region already high and vital American and Israeli interests at stake, J Street urges members of Congress to seek changes to the letters currently circulating before signing – or to write their own.

The window of opportunity for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is closing rapidly, and statements like those now circulating in Congress only push the window down harder. J Street fears that, in the years ahead, lawmakers will come to regret the failure of the United States to exercise real leadership toward ending the conflict. Failure now to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dooms the region to further violence and puts at risk the very Jewish and democratic home in the state of Israel that lawmakers are purporting to support so deeply.

We would ask lawmakers to demonstrate real courage and leadership at this critical moment to call on the President to turn crisis into opportunity and to make ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central priority of his foreign policy. The test for Congressional statements should not be their acceptability to any one lobby group (including J Street) but whether they advance the American, Israeli and regional interest in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieving a two-state solution before it is too late.

The sign-on letters now circulating in the House and Senate, while expressing strong American support for Israel – a position we endorse – fail to address the impact of the present closure of Gaza on the civilian population, the deep American interest in resolving this conflict diplomatically, or the urgency of moving forward with diplomacy before it is too late. By ignoring these critical issues in favor of a simplistic statement that supports Israeli policy and actions, Congress is serving neither the best interests of the United States or of Israel.

We urge Members of Congress to step back from the letters currently circulating and to express more nuanced views of the situation that emphasize the urgency of American leadership to end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We would support a letter to the President that:
• Affirms strong U.S. support for Israel, its security and its right to self-defense;
• Affirms the American interest in achieving a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resulting in two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security;
• Acknowledges the gravity of the situation in Gaza – where residents live on approximately 25 percent of the volume of goods from outside the territory as they did in 2005. The U.S. Government-funded charity American Near East Refugee Aid reports that Israel permits, on average, 171 trucks of food and supplies per week into Gaza, while 400 per day are needed just to meet the population’s basic nutritional needs. The World Health Organization reports that 95% of Gaza’s water fails water quality standards, leaving thousands of newborn at risk of poisoning, while 48% of Gazan children under the age of 5 suffer from Anemia;
• Affirms Israel’s legitimate interest in preventing arms and weapons from entering Gaza and condemns the use of violence by Hamas and other organizations in Gaza.
• Calls on Hamas to immediately release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and to renounce violence, abide by past agreements and recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist;
• Recognizes that the current blockade has not necessarily made Israel more secure but has rather strengthened Hamas’ hold on the territory. Gazan civilians blame Israel for any deprivation they now suffer while Hamas continues to ship arms through tunnels, along with food and building materials whose distribution it then controls for its own benefit;
• Welcomes Israel’s announcement of an investigation of the flotilla incident and echoes the White House’s call on the government of Israel to ensure that the investigation be impartial, independent, rapid and transparent;
• Urges the President to continue his active diplomatic engagement aimed at ending the conflict and to explore ways to advance a broader push for comprehensive regional peace;

On behalf of the over 150,000 supporters of J Street and the many Americans – Jewish and non-Jewish – who believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an essential interest of the United States and an existential need of Israel’s, I ask you to add your name only to letters that advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and to refrain from signing those designed simply to satisfy the perceived imperatives of domestic politics.
Jeremy Ben-Ami
J Street

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.