J Street Learns to Play the Washington Money Game
Last week, in reference to the decision by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to lobby on behalf of President Barack Obama's let's-attack-Syria-except-actually-not plan, I wrote that if I were the type to believe in conspiracy theories I'd be tempted to think that the president, who has had a difficult relationship with Aipac, was roping Washington's leading pro-Israel advocacy group into his unpopular campaign in order to diminish its reputation.
Mission accomplished, it would seem.
Cut to yesterday, when J Street -- a substantially more liberal pro-Israel group that is generally seen as an upstart rival to Aipac -- announced that Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. peace envoy Martin Indyk would be speaking at its convention this month.
This was a noteworthy announcement for a couple of reasons.
The first is that the Obama administration, which is more sympathetic to J Street's worldview than to that of Aipac, has nevertheless kept its distance from the group, fearful of alienating more powerful and more conservative Jewish supporters of Israel. The White House has sent speakers to the J Street conference in the past, but none as high-ranking as Biden.
The second is that J Street, which once promised to be the president's "blocking back" in Congress, refused to help Obama lobby for his Syria resolution. Soon after J Street announced its neutrality, a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told me that the group was "dead to us."
So why is Biden appearing at the group's convention? Does this announcement signal the moment when the White House casts aside Aipac -- whose much-larger convention has been visited by Obama and other senior officials repeatedly?
No, not actually, according to administration officials and Capitol Hill aides I spoke to. Two officials told me that the decision to dispatch Biden to J Street was made as a personal favor to Louis Susman, one of Obama's chief campaign-contribution bundlers, who was appointed ambassador to the U.K. in 2009 partly as payback for his fundraising. Susman, who left the ambassadorship in April, is also close to Biden; he hosted the vice president and his family for Thanksgiving last year.
Susman joined the board of J Street shortly after returning from London and, according to people I spoke to, was asked by J Street's founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, to recruit top-tier administration officials for his conference, something Ben-Ami's lower-wattage board hadn't previously been able to do. Biden, who is contemplating a run for president and could use a master bundler like Susman, was said to be eager to participate.
(I reached out to Susman for comment, but he has yet to respond. Ben-Ami, by e-mail, wouldn't answer questions about Susman, instead writing: "J Street represents the core base of support for a top Administration priority -- achieving a two-state solution. There is broad interest across the Administration in building the constituency for that effort -- and this speech is a part of that. Nothing more, nothing less.")
Does all this mean that Biden, one of the most hawkishly pro-Israel members of Obama's team, is moving to the left? Does it spell trouble for his relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has seen Biden as an ally?
No. It means that Biden will deliver an anodyne pro-Israel speech to J Street, endorsing new peace efforts and noting (as Obama has many times) that Israel's settlement policy is distinctly unhelpful, but mainly offering a vigorous defense of Israel's right to exist and an enthusiastic endorsement of a close U.S.-Israel relationship and a two-state solution. A candidate thinking about running for president will not stray far from these basic points.
Will this be satisfying to J Street attendees, many of whom have more ambivalent feelings about Israel than does Biden? Not particularly. What will be satisfying to J Street's members is the knowledge that the group has finally begun to figure out how to play the Washington game the way Aipac, and all effective lobbying groups, play the Washington game: by lining up the money men.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)