J Street, Soros, and U.S. Leadership in the Middle East

Like many other supporters of the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street, I was disappointed to read last week the news that George Soros has been a major financial supporter of the group. To be clear, I wasn't disappointed that the group is receiving support from Soros, just that they hadn't been up front about it.

For the rodeo clowns of the American right, George Soros has become the 00's version of the UN's black helicopters, a symbol of dark conspiracies that help conservatives explain to themselves why the world isn't as they desperately wish it were. For his critics, his generous support of democratic reform in former Communist Eastern Europe counts for little when he brings those same values to bear on his giving here in the United States. The organization I work for, the Center for American Progress, is one of many that have benefited financially from Soros' devotion to a more just, progressive, and open society.

Soros' criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its reflexive support for Israel's worst excesses have also made him a deeply suspect figure among many in the conservative pro-Israel community. This suspicion arises as much out of concern that AIPAC's prerogatives in Congress might be constrained by greater scrutiny (as former AIPAC official Steven Rosen put it before he was indicted, "A lobby is like a night flower. It thrives in the dark and withers in the light") as out of genuine concern for Israel's well-being.

That the indignation over George Soros is overblown is demonstrated by the fact that some of those attacking J Street have had no problem making use of his money. For example, former Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb, one of J Street's most obsessive critics, is now a vice-president at the lobbying firm Orion Strategies. As Salon's Justin Elliott discovered last week, Orion Strategies has received funds from Soros' Open Society Policy Center.

The current round of attacks on J Street, then, are about what the attacks on J Street have always been about: The arrogant presumption of hawkish pro-Israel conservatives that there can be only one acceptable pro-Israel position in Washington, a rubber stamp for whatever the Israeli government wants at any given moment, regardless of the actual consequences for the Palestinians, for the region, or for U.S. interests. The individuals and organizations mounting and funding these attacks make no secret of their hostility to the peace process, or of their antipathy toward Palestinian rights. (The neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel, an organization created specifically to fight J Street, only recently endorsed the two-state solution after being shamed into it by J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami.)

This is a critical moment for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for U.S. leadership in the Middle East. As I noted in a recent report on the difficult political issues at play in the negotiations, there is a growing belief among both Israelis and Palestinians that the possibility of a two-state solution is slipping away. It's easy -- and, given the state of negotiations, on a knife's edge over Israel's refusal to extend its settlement moratorium and amid some of the worst unrest in East Jerusalem in years, probably not incorrect -- to be pessimistic about the prospects for a peace deal in the near future. But it's a testament to the centrality of this conflict to a number of other U.S. challenges in the region, and the strong national security consensus around the reality of those linkages, that President Obama has chosen to put his political and diplomatic capital, and America's, behind such an effort right now.

J Street was created to ensure that this effort receives the American political support required to succeed. They have been and will continue to be, denounced by those who mistakenly believe that the Middle East status quo is sustainable. But for those of us who know that it is not, and who believe that an agreement leading to the creation of an independent Palestinian state living alongside a safe and secure Israel is in the best interests of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans, J Street has been, and will continue to be, an indispensable voice.