Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) infamously said: "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator." But Hagel, who is President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense in his second term, does take Israel very seriously--so seriously that he was chosen to address the first national conference of J Street, the far-left, George Soros-funded organization that lobbies Congress and the administration to get tougher on Israel.
In addition to reiterating his view that the U.S. relationship with Israel "must not come at the expense of our relationships with our Arab allies and friends," Hagel also praised, as the basis for negotiations, the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which called for Israel to cede all territory captured in the defensive Six Day War, including East Jerusalem. He also praised President Barack Obama for "helping forge an emerging Arab consensus on peace, combating terrorism, and future relationships with Iran and Syria." (Hagel's remarks, notably, came in October 2009, several months after President Obama failed to assist pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran.)
J Street bills itself as "pro-Israel," but does not embrace Israel in any meaningful political or cultural sense. Its central preoccupation has been twofold: first, to support the Obama administration's policies on Israel; and second, to create a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel organization responsible for cultivating bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel alliance over decades.
Unlike AIPAC, J Street is self-consciously Jewish; unlike AIPAC, J Street is directly involved in political races through its Political Action Committee; unlike AIPAC, J Street takes an official position on what the policies of the Israeli government ought to be; and unlike AIPAC, J Street is almost entirely a Democratic Party project. AIPAC lobbies; J Street operates as a community organizing arm of the Obama administration among Jews.
Officially, J Street is non-partisan, but the few Republicans it supports are those, like Hagel, who have been critical of the close and special U.S.-Israel relationship. One of J Street's first projects was to oppose the inclusion of Gov. Sarah Palin in a bipartisan protest against Iran's nuclear program in the fall of 2008; J Street gleefully celebrated when she was disgracefully uninvited. J Street has taken many controversial stances, including: supporting President Obama's harsh criticism of Israeli construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, opposing sanctions against Iran (until reversing itself under pressure); and promoting the libelous Goldstone Report, which falsely accused Israel of war crimes in the Gaza War of 2008-9.
Both J Street and AIPAC support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But J Street is intolerant of anyone who believes that terrorism, rather than Israeli reluctance, is the main obstacle to peace. In 2010, J Street released an ad attacking what it called the "Chorus of No"--including Sen. Joe Lieberman and Democratic legal scholar Alan Dershowitz (both of whom openly advocate for a two-state solution) alongside conservatives including Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. J Street deliberately used audio that did not match the video of Dershowitz speaking, and agreed to remove him from the video when he objected. The organization also urged the U.S. government to investigate Jewish-American charities whose social services might happen to benefit Israelis living across the "Green Line"--i.e. the 1949 armistice line, commonly referred to as the 1967 boundary.
J Street is largely ineffective in the broader American political debate, but--with help from the Obama White House--has had a profound effect within the Democratic Party. It has emboldened Democratic critics of Israel, with occasionally dramatic results, such as in the Democratic National Convention floor fight over the exclusion of God and Jerusalem from the party platform. If it is unfair, as some would argue, to say that the Democrats are no longer pro-Israel, it is certainly accurate to say that the gap between the parties is wider than ever.
The J Street conference at which Hagel spoke was a seminal event in J Street's organizational history. Those who chose to attend--almost all of whom were left-wing Democrats--were making a conscious choice to support an alternative to AIPAC that voiced strident criticisms of Israel and Israel's domestic supporters. Hagel made a statement by speaking there--not just through the words that he said, but the fact that he spoke at all.
Today, J Street--like other organizations and individuals critical of Israel--is campaigning hard for Hagel's confirmation as Secretary of Defense. It has launched an effort called "Smear a Bagel, not Chuck Hagel," for instance. As usual, the effort is not aimed as much at generating support for Hagel as it is aimed at attacking his opponents. But the news that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) would support Hagel's confirmation--even in advance of the Senate hearings--is a victory for J Street. During President Obama's first term, Sen. Schumer took positions opposed to those that J Street supported, and criticized the president harshly for his attacks on Israeli policy, calling them "terrible" and a "dagger." Now that Sen. Schumer is backing a nominee who is even more critical of Israel than Obama has ever been in public, it appears that J Street has won the ideological battle among Democrats, clearing the way for President Obama to apply more pressure to Israel in his second term.
With Schumer's backing, Hagel's confirmation is likely, though not certain; only 42% of Americans support him--even less popular than the much-maligned Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush administration. But if and when Hagel becomes the Secretary of Defense, he'll know who to thank. He is, after all, the Senator from J Street.