J Street Under Fire for Ducking Syria Question

Sources: Refusal to take a stand on strikes reduces group’s credibility

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street / AP
September 9, 2013

The liberal Middle East lobbying group J Street says that it will not take a stand on the Syria debate, leading congressional insiders to question the group’s credibility and seriousness.

J Street bills itself as one of the premiere Middle East policy groups and boasts of close ties to the White House, having even vowed to serve as President Barack Obama’s "blocking back" in Congress.

However, the group has not been able to reach a conclusion about whether it will lobby Congress on behalf of the White House’s Syria resolution, which would authorize U.S. intervention and potentially spark retaliations against Israel.

Top congressional observers and pro-Israel insiders say that J Street’s silence has led them to lose respect for the dovish group, which has faced an uphill battle gaining mainstream acceptance.

J Street told the Washington Free Beacon on Sept. 4 that it was "in internal discussions" on the matter. Buzzfeed reported on Sunday that J Street will not pick a side.

"We are not taking a position on the Congressional resolution," Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, told Buzzfeed. "Our statement on Syria from August 29th stands."

This statement expressed "outrage" and condemned Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons. However, it stopped short of endorsing U.S. military intervention and described the debate using vague terms.

"We are cognizant that there are no easy or clear-cut solutions," the statement said.

Longtime pro-Israel officials and top congressional aides said J Street’s failure to take a stand only reinforces the belief among many that J Street is not truly pro-Israel.

"J Street invariably parrots the administration line on the Middle East. But they only support Democrats in Congress who are for the most part not friendly toward Israel and are against hitting Syria," said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has come out in full support of American military action in Syria.

"So J Street is really on the spot," Amitay said. "This demonstrates again why they should never be considered ‘pro-Israel.’"

Middle East policy aides on Capitol Hill warned that J Street is damaging its reputation and stands to lose credibility on Capitol Hill.

"Serious organizations take positions on complex issues," said one senior congressional aide who is familiar with the group’s lobbying efforts. "To consider yourself a leading pro-Israel lobby and just stand on the sidelines in one of the biggest fights about Middle East policy in recent memory is not serious."

"I think [Hill] staffers would have more respect for J Street if they took a position, even if it was against" intervention, the aide said. "Maybe if they could find a way to blame Israel they’d take a position."

Warned another senior policy advisor, "J Street will soon learn the same thing [Sen.] Ed Markey did last week in the foreign relations committee: when you abstain, you become irrelevant."

Markey received widespread criticism last week when he voted "present" on the controversial use-of-force resolution.

Other insiders on Capitol Hill said that J Street is caught in a lose-lose position. Its liberal base will not abide support for a Syria strike. Yet, its allies in the White House are asking for all the backing they can get.

"J Street is stuck between a rock and a hard place as its liberal members fundamentally oppose military intervention in Syria but refuse to take a public position opposing President Obama," said another senior Congressional aide familiar with the group.

"J Street is thus unwilling to weigh in on perhaps the most critical U.S. foreign policy decision in nearly a decade—and, perhaps reflective of the organization's influence, few people have seemed to notice," the aide said.

Pro-Israel insiders have long been wary of J Street. Many accuse the group of advocating on behalf of Israel’s enemies.

One senior official with a pro-Israel organization told the Free Beacon that J Street’s silence on Syria has only extended its "100 percent record of never lobbying against Iran or an Iranian proxy. Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria—it doesn’t matter."

Congressional staffers and members have a long memory, warned one of the senior officials quoted above.

"All of the sudden these offices [that look to J Street for advice] have been abandoned because [the group] is nowhere to be found on the issue," said the aide.

J Street did not respond to a request for comment on its decision.