Moderate pro-Israel lobbyists energised by tougher White House rhetoric

The emerging moderate Israel lobby in Washington seeks to counter hawkish groups that have long dominated the discourse.

WASHINGTON // The Obama administration's harsh criticism of Israel has energised the emerging moderate Israel lobby, which supports a tough-love approach to US-Israel diplomacy and seeks to counter the powerful, hawkish groups that have long dominated the discourse here. Left-leaning groups have sprung into action in recent days, writing letters and petitions and urging their members to show support for the sharp White House rebuke of Israel's decision to build 1,600 new housing units in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

For them, the Obama administration's strong words are a welcome change in tone, and the recent diplomatic flap, described by some analysts as the worst in decades, could be a defining moment for the movement as it seeks to gain legitimacy. Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for J Street, the leading moderate lobbying group, said: "I think the movement has really stepped up." J Street delivered a petition of support with 18,000 signatures to the White House on Monday, and on Tuesday it sent out an e-mail encouraging members to write their legislators expressing their belief that the administration's reaction has been "understandable and appropriate".

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, another left-leaning group that works closely with J Street, said: "The administration really needs to hear our voice, not the just the voices of organisations that, almost in kind of a knee-jerk fashion, lambast it whenever it calls out Israel." Americans for Peace Now urged its supporters to write to newspaper editors expressing their support for the White House's tough rhetoric.

The main goal of such moderate groups is to establish themselves as a counterbalance to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the powerful lobbying group known for its unwavering support and aversion to any criticism of Israel. In a statement on Sunday, Aipac called the administration's rhetoric "a matter of serious concern" and a "distraction", urging the White House to "to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel".

Both Aipac and J Street consider themselves "pro-Israel" and both welcome new signs that the diplomatic feud may be subsiding. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, reverted to more familiar and conciliatory rhetoric, describing the "unshakable bond" between the United States and Israel and expressing "absolute commitment to Israel's security". But the two sides vary widely on the question of how much pressure Washington should exert on its longtime partner, a political difference that many believe is reflected in the broader American-Jewish community.

J Street is not likely to match Aipac's stature and influence any time soon. Aipac accounted for three quarters of the money spent to lobby the federal government on pro-Israel issues last year, according to the Washington-based Centre for Responsive Politics, which tracks the lobbying industry. J Street, on the other hand, was responsible for just four per cent of the total. And while Aipac commands the attention of top Israeli and US policymakers - both Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mrs Clinton are expected to attend the group's annual conference next week - J Street's inaugural conference last year was snubbed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who rejected an invitation citing concerns about the group's pro-Israel credentials.

However, J Street has come on strong since its founding in 2008 and many Israel observers have been impressed by its growth. The group has about 150,000 supporters and in February it launched 21 local chapters across the country. JStreetPAC, the group's political action committee, expects to distribute close to $1 million (Dh3.67m) during this year's midterm elections, a 50 per cent increase over the amount it distributed during the 2008 election cycle.

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said: "They seem to have got off to a fairly fast and an impressive start in terms of garnering attention and that sort of thing. But how much staying power they have remains to be seen." Many believe that the broader American Jewish community is more closely aligned with Aipac's notion of "pro Israel" than it is with J Street's. Several prominent Jewish groups in recent days have issued statements condemning the administration's sharp tone. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, an umbrella group, said on Tuesday that the administration's response had "increased tensions" and spoke of "continued incitement" by the Palestinian Authority.

The American Jewish Committee, meanwhile, urged the White House to "call a halt to its public denunciations of the Israeli government and return to the use of language befitting the close relations between Washington and Jerusalem". But there are signs that American Jews may not be all that averse to J Street's position. A Gallup poll in September found a 64 per cent approval rating for Barack Obama among American Jews, the highest for any religious group. While that number dropped from a high of 83 per cent in January, the decline was consistent with an overall decline among all US voters, suggesting that Mr Obama's Middle East policies - including his cooler relationship with Mr Netanyahu - were not having a disproportionately negative impact on his image among American Jews.

Ms Spitalnick said that the while J Street members are not relishing the current dispute, the administration's tougher tone with Israel creates a new opportunity for moderate groups to assert their relevance. "I think this one of the more important and certainly one of the biggest moments for our movement," she said.