US pro-Israel groups in bitter feud over Netanyahu’s far-right government

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  September 1, 2023

Hardline AIPAC – condemned for unquestioning support of PM – calls liberal rival J Street ‘grave threat’ to Israel’s security.

A public feud has broken out between the US’s leading pro-Israel lobby groups over who represents the true interests of the Jewish state in Washington under the most rightwing government in its history.

The hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has called its smaller and more liberal rival, J Street, a “grave threat” to Israel’s security and accused it of endorsing the country’s “most virulent critics” in Congress.

J Street has responded by portraying AIPAC as a front for Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist coalition, while accusing it of failing to support unprecedented Israeli public protests against an undemocratic power grab by the government.

The vitriolic dispute reflects a deepening divide among American Jews about what it is to be pro-Israel. But it also comes as AIPAC’s once-unchallenged influence in Washington has been diminished by its unwavering backing for Netanyahu over the past decade or more, including siding with the Israeli leader against President Barack Obama, and by growing support for the Palestinian cause within the Democratic party as Israel further entrenches its occupation.

AIPAC’s standing was also damaged when, for the first time in its history, it broke with its claim to be bipartisan last year and began directly funding political campaigns against critics of Israeli government policies. It was accused of being “morally bankrupt” for endorsing Republican members of Congress who tried to block President Biden’s presidential election victory.

At the heart of the dispute is AIPAC’s position that support for Israel means virtually unquestioned backing for whatever government is in power. J Street argues that support for Israel requires standing for the country’s broader interests, including an end to occupation, even when that is in opposition to the policies of a particular administration in Jerusalem.

As the two lobby groups prepare to face off by pouring millions of dollars into backing rival candidates in next year’s congressional elections, AIPAC sent its donors a letter attacking J Street’s policies such as imposing conditions on the US’s $3.8bn a year in military aid to Israel to prevent it being used to annex Palestinian territory, expand Jewish settlements or other actions to entrench occupation. J Street endorsed the Democratic congresswoman Betty McCollum’s 2021 bill to place similar conditions on US aid.

“Today, one of the gravest threats to American support for Israel’s security comes from an organization that outrageously calls itself pro-Israel,” AIPAC said in the letter.

“J Street’s efforts fracture the bipartisan consensus for Israel and give its radical opponents in Congress a veneer of legitimacy from an allegedly ‘pro-Israel’ group. This is a clear and present threat to American support for the Jewish state.”

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, fired back in a series of tweets.

“Sadly, over time, AIPAC has embraced an increasingly distorted vision of what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’ – one more aligned with the goals of the Netanyahu government and the American right than with the Jewish, democratic values of most Jewish Americans (+ Israelis themselves),” he wrote.

“There’s no room for genuine concern over eroding democracy, endless settlements, racist rhetoric and the growing toll of maintaining a permanent, unjust, undemocratic occupation.”

AIPAC’s attack in part reflects a growing concern within the Israeli government that demands by J Street and others for the US government to take a stronger stand to end the occupation will gain wider traction in Washington.

The dispute has spilled over to Israel itself.

The liberal Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz two weeks ago described AIPAC as “the pro-Netanyahu, anti-Israel lobby” and accused the group of flying in 24 Democratic members of Congress “so that Netanyahu could mollify them with lies”.

“Effectively, the organization has become an operational wing of Netanyahu’s far-right government, one that peddles a false image of a liberal Israel in the United States and sells illusions to members of Congress,” it said.

The leaders of Israel’s pro-democracy movement, which has led months of mass protests against the government’s moves to weaken the power of the judiciary, accused AIPAC of blocking the visiting Democratic members of Congress from meeting the protesters.

“It is about time AIPAC realizes that there are no longer any buyers for the fake picture of Israel it’s trying to sell,” said the authors, who included the former deputy head of Israel’s national security council and former officials in the prime minister’s office.

“AIPAC is trying to offer an alternative reality and is effectively turning from a pro-Israel organization to one that promotes the anti-democratic overhaul and the de facto annexation of the West Bank, led by Netanyahu and aided by the most extreme, racist and violent elements of the Israeli far right.”

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem