RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today in Washington, a new pro-Israel lobby and political action committee is launched with the aim of changing the dialogue in Washington to encourage more diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli question and on Iran.
NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.
MICHELE KELEMEN: K Street is a well-known street in Washington, a base for many lobbying groups. There is no J Street, until now.
Mr. JEREMY BEN-AMI (J Street Committee): J Street is a non-existent street in Washington. So we look at J Street as filling a gap in the political map in Washington, D.C.
KELEMEN: That's Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton administration official who's launching the political action committee J Street today. The idea is to back congressional candidates who will advocate for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street aims to create an online movement, much like Moveon.org.
Mr. BEN-AMI: For too long, a small number of large donors from the right wing of the American Jewish community have actually hijacked the debate and have actually taken control of what it means to be pro-Israel. And we think we can reclaim that with an online movement where we bring large numbers of small donors together to give voice to their political views in a way that hasn't been possible before.
Unidentified Announcer: Is this what it means to be pro-Israel?
Mr. JOHN HAGEE (Christians United for Israel): If America does not stop pressuring Israel to give up land, I believe that God will bring this nation into judgment.
KELEMEN: A promotional video on YouTube features John Hagee of Christians United for Israel and some well-known neo-conservatives who Ben-Ami says have also hijacked the pro-Israel cause. He goes out of his way not to portray J Street as an alternative to APAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. But M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace think tank here, sees J Street as exactly that.
Mr. M.J. ROSENBERG (Israel Policy Forum): If there was no APAC that was mobilizing support for the status quo, there'd be no need for any of these organizations.
KELEMEN: Rosenberg says a start up group could be influential if it's able to put real money behind its causes. And he gave one example, pointing out how APAC members accuse Congresswoman Betty McCollum of supporting terrorists after she spoke out in favor of continued humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in the wake of Hamas's election victory.
Mr. ROSENBERG: It could've caused her problems. In the end, it didn't. She didn't back down, and she was reelected. But it would be a very good thing to be able to say to her, Congressman McCollum, if there's any campaign donations that you lose because of this position, you can gain on the other side from Jews who care about Israel but think that the best thing you can do for Israel is to be for peace.
KELEMEN: An APAC official wouldn't go on record for this story, but said that his organization does support Middle East peace talks, and unlike J Street, is not a political action committee. So it doesn't make sense to compare the two.
Former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says as a start-up, J Street will have a lot of work to do to gain credibility.
Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Any group that would like to be effective the way APAC is would have to, in some ways, reflect the kind of APAC model, I suspect. Meaning that first, it's nonpartisan. Second, it's also nonpartisan within Israel and is able to bring Israelis from across the political spectrum here.
KELEMEN: Twenty former Israeli politicians signed a letter to support J Street, saying being pro-Israel does not require rigid agreement with every policy pursued by the U.S. and Israeli governments.
And Jeremy Ben-Ami says J Street will back Democrats and Republicans this fall, focusing on a handful of congressional races. He says the goal is not to offer policy advice, but to let American politicians know they shouldn't fear debate over controversial issues, such as what to do about Hamas.
Mr. BEN-AMI: What we're going to do is affect the political dynamics and to make it possible to have at least a discussion here in the United States about whether or not somebody should be speaking to Hamas. That's really not on the table at the moment.
KELEMEN: Dennis Ross said if he were advising J Street, he would stay away from that discussion for now and pick issues carefully.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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