New pro-Israel initiative doesn’t aim to compete with AIPAC, organizers say


WASHINGTON — Dismay over the American Jewish leadership’s perceived reluctance to press the Bush administration to work toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is behind a series of recent meetings aimed at pressing the case forward.

Jewish organizational officials who have participated in the meetings said JTA’s characterization of their aim in a story earlier this week, as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was wrong.

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Top AIPAC officials, who first heard of the effort from JTA’s reporting, agreed, and said they did not consider the group extraordinary.

It was clear, however, that those behind the initiative believe AIPAC — the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby — and other major Jewish groups have not pressed the Bush administration forcefully enough to engage more fully in the region, something they believe endangers Israel’s security.

“It’s a set of conversations of people trying to have the United States and the American Jewish community more proactive in efforts to restart an initiative to resolve the Middle East conflict,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “Neither I nor the Religious Action Center are going to be part of something that’s anti-AIPAC.”

Saperstein is taking a lead role in the effort, along with David Elcott, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum; Jeremy Ben-Ami, a Clinton administration policy adviser who now works for Fenton Communications, a Washington public relations giant; and Mort Halperin, a veteran of the Clinton, Johnson and Nixon administrations who directs U.S. advocacy for billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

Each participant stressed that they were acting as individuals and not necessarily on behalf of their organizations.

The conversations will continue at an Oct. 25 meeting in New York of potential funders. A number of wealthy Jewish philanthropists were invited. Right now, it seems the two taking the most serious interest are Soros and Charles Bronfman, according to organizers.

Soros, who is best known for advocating democracy abroad and opposing the Bush administration on foreign policy, has not previously been involved in Jewish initiatives.

Bronfman is one of the biggest philanthropists to Jewish and Israel causes and helped initiate birthright israel, the program that funds visits to Israel for young Diaspora Jews. Bronfman’s office did not return a call seeking comment.

Edgar Bronfman, Charles’ brother and another mega-donor to Jewish and Israel causes, also was invited, but won’t participate.

“He does not want to reflect an opinion about this project; he is not involved,” a spokesman said.

News of the initiative emerged in part because of a rift at the inaugural Sept. 13 meeting in Washington over the degree to which AIPAC should be confronted. There were a number of representatives at that meeting who have directly challenged what they believe is AIPAC’s hawkishness. Others at the meeting said confronting AIPAC would be counterproductive.

Subsequently, those participants who favored a more direct confrontation with AIPAC dropped away, though it was unclear whether they were disinvited or simply chose not to continue participating.

Those currently leading the effort say they’re happy to work with AIPAC.

“My involvement is that Mort Halperin’s an old friend,” said Mel Levine, a former U.S. Democratic congressman who is now a high-powered West Coast lawyer. “Mort asked me to go to an initial exploratory meeting about a pro-Israel advocacy organization that would focus on a two-state solution, that would focus on Israel and was not in competition with anyone else.”

That did not usurp AIPAC’S role of advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, Levine said.

“It is possible to have a value in other groups communicating different themes,” he said.

A statement from the Israel Policy Forum said the idea was to explore common ground, not expand on differences.

IPF “engaged in these very preliminary discussions in order to seek commonality with other American pro-Israel groups and individuals who share IPF’s conviction that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state living alongside one another in peace and security — best serves the interests of Israel, stability in the Middle East and American foreign policy,” it said.

Top AIPAC officials said they saw the organization as complementing AIPAC’s pro-Israel mission from different perspectives, as the Zionist Organization of America now does from the right and Americans for Peace Now does from the left. Both organizations are represented on AIPAC’s executive committee.

AIPAC favors a two-state solution, but they and other groups became much more cautious after the Oslo peace process collapsed and a radical Islamist leadership that rejects Israel’s existence emerged among Palestinians.

“AIPAC has a very focused agenda,” defending Israel’s security, IPF’s Elcott said. “What we’re talking about is a Zionist organization committed to the State of Israel whose priority it is to push the American government in this conflict.”

AIPAC officials did not dispute that their role was more focused. They distinguished between their organization’s role as a “perennial” promoter of a strong U.S.- Israel relationship and the new initiative’s “prescriptive” outlook, suggesting that AIPAC would still be in place once two states were existing side by side in peace; the new organization would no longer have a reason to exist.

Elcott said much of the American Jewish community was restricted by a natural fear of dealing with the Palestinians since the Oslo peace process collapsed into a bloody intifada.

“For Jews and Israel, despair is more dangerous than Hezbollah and Hamas,” Elcott said, referring to terrorist groups seeking Israel’s destruction. “What we are looking for is a better way to defend Israel.”

Elcott acknowledged that IPF’s ostensible aim already was to press for greater U.S. engagement toward a two-state solution. He said that if the new initiative superseded the need for IPF, he would accept that.

Even for those who most adamantly insisted that the new group would not compete with AIPAC, it was hard to resist the language of competition.

“We put out a model of a product and go into the marketplace of ideas and compete. We are a group of people who are looking for the best way to ensure Israel’s survival and future,” said one organizer, who asked not to be identified. “We’re going into existence because this product is not being offered right now. We want to make sure that this point of view has a clear and loud voice.”