Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, accepted an endorsement Monday from J Street, the pro-Israel lobby and political action committee whose moderate positions on Middle East peace have clashed with those of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish PACs that follow its hard-line political directives.
Durbin, gearing up to run for re-election in 2014, is now the most senior Democrat to seek and receive J Street’s stamp of approval since the organization began endorsing candidates in 2008.
“I’m happy to have the support of J Street as I make plans to run for reelection next year,” Durbin said in a written statement. “Just as our commitment to Israel is as unbreakable as ever, so too must our commitment be to peace. A strong, democratic Israel will prosper next to a viable, independent Palestinian State and that is what I’ll continue to advocate for as a member of the United States Senate.”
Political analysts said Durbin, a three-term, pro-Israel lawmaker who also has received donations from Jewish PACs on the basis of AIPAC’s recommendation, is seeking to broaden his base of support within the Jewish community, which is not monolithic in the way it supports Israel.
Durbin’s embrace of the J Street endorsement “shows there is a growing constituency in the base that wants to see more movement toward a peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, said Douglas M. Bloomfield, a veteran analyst of Jewish American politics and a columnist for several Jewish newspapers. “He also gives cover to his colleagues who want to take a more pro-peace point of view.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, in an effort to revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, is said to be trying to convene a June meeting in Amman, Jordan, between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Up until a few years ago, candidates who sought votes and political donations from the Jewish community adopted hawkish positions on how Israel should relate to its neighbors, on Iran and on the Palestinian conflict, believing most Jewish voters held hard-line positions on the issue of Israel and Middle East peace.
“We started J Street with the belief that there was also strong support from the American Jewish community for candidates who are willing to take what we call a pro-Israel, pro-peace position, one that supports strong U.S. engagement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Daniel Kalik, J Street’s director of political affairs.
Over the past three election cycles, the number of candidates accepting J Street’s endorsements and political donations has grown from a handful in 2008 to 71 in 2012, all but one of whom won their election bids with help from more than $1.8 million in J Street’s political donations.
The most prominent of those candidates until Durbin was California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who has publicly condemned Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied West Bank and strongly supports negotiations that will result in Israel living side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Other candidates who received J Street’s endorsement for the current election cycle include Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Bill Enyart, D-Ill.
“Most smart Democratic politicians now realize that they need to raise money from the entire Jewish community, whether it’s from those who are members of J Street or those who are members of AIPAC,” Kalik said.
Bloomfield said there was little chance that Durbin’s acceptance of J Street’s endorsement would cost him AIPAC’s support. “He’s been too good, too close, for too long for them to try to find somebody to run against him,” he said. “He has a long history of support for Israel, so nobody can now call him a fair-weather friend.”