Rep. Eliot Engel has seen the Iran ads on television: The sombre “good deal or bad deal?” ad that urges Congress to reject the Iran nuclear agreement; and the promising “good deal” ad, that defends the agreement as a plus for American and Israeli security. The surprise is not that there are contrasting viewpoints on such a controversial deal, but that the ads are backed by competing Jewish lobbies.
For decades, the hawkish American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, has been king of the Hill in Washington. Well-funded, it is considered the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying force on United States-Israel security issues. It strongly opposes the deal in favour of trying for a better one. Congressman Engel (D) of New York, who is Jewish, is a long-time friend of AIPAC.
But now, there is also an opposing view. J Street – named for a missing street in Washington – is elbowing its way into the conversation. Founded in 2008 to support a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, the liberal underdog has launched an intense effort to convince undecided Democrats to support a deal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls a “mistake of historic proportions.”
The lobbying effort from both camps is shaping up to be the first big test of their competing Jewish-American worldviews on Capitol Hill. Republicans are firmly in line with AIPAC. But the scramble is on for Democrats, especially in the House, where they are seen as the firewall against GOP opposition. Many, such as Engel, have yet to say how they will vote. More broadly, the lobbying points to splits within the American Jewish community itself.
J Street argues that it represents the majority view of the Jewish community, which a Pew 2013 survey describes as among “the most strongly liberal, Democratic groups in US politics.” Two-thirds identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning, and a survey released by J Street this week shows 60 percent of American Jews support the Iran deal.
A recent national poll of Jews by the LA Jewish Journal finds a plurality supporting the agreement. But it also reveals deep scepticism, with a majority of respondents saying the agreement makes Israel “more endangered.” Neither are they confident that Iran will be prevented from developing a nuclear weapon in 10 years, as the agreement lays out. AIPAC is riding that scepticism wave, and as the clear winner in the money race, it is reportedly spending $20 million to $40 million with other pro-Israel groups on just on the ad campaign. J Street has raised a total of just $2.5 million so far.
In an interview, J Street’s chief lobbyist, Dylan Williams, says the trend is moving toward enough Democrat support to preserve the deal. But “as in any Hill fight, you don’t want to count your votes before they’re cast.” He describes J Street’s lobbying effort on the Iran agreement as its most intense effort by far – “a major test” for the young organization.
Mr. Williams characterizes AIPAC as part of the “old” elite, packed with neoconservatives who are out of step with American Jewish opinion but in lockstep with the conservative government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. “This disconnect between where pro-Israel American Jews actually are, and where these self-selected leaders of Jewish community groupssay they are, is a major issue in this debate,” says Williams.
This week, J Street is also bringing two high-level Israeli security experts to the Hill – Alon Pinkas, the former consul general for Israel in New York, and Gen. Amram Mitzna, the former leader of the Labour Party and former Israeli general in charge of the West Bank. Other Israeli “security validators” will be coming over soon. Americans might not know it, but the “Israeli security establishment” supports the deal, says Williams – a point that Secretary of State John Kerry made at a Senate hearing last week. According to the AIPAC source, “we are engaged in a major bipartisan educational and lobbying effort against the deal and for a better deal.” J Street has the might of the majority on its side, says Williams. But where Congressman Engel – and other Democrats – eventually stand is what matters most to Mr. Obama.
Iran Deal: Battle Between two Jewish Lobbies | Francine Kiefer
— Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor