Can new pro-Israel group J Street generate political clout?

Can fundraising success translate into Capitol Hill clout?

That’s the question facing J Street, the new liberal pro-Israel political action committee, which raised nearly $570,000 for 41 U.S. House and Senate candidates — a total far surpassing most other pro-Israel political action committees.

Even some of the group’s critics called J Street’s fundraising prowess impressive for an organization that officially launched just last April. But with an election just completed in the United States and one on the horizon in Israel, many said it is still too early to judge exactly how and whether J Street can also make a mark in the halls of the U.S. Congress. For now, the organization is pointing to its fundraising success as progress.

“Our hope is what we did in this cycle will demonstrate there is political support for a broad range of views of what it means to be pro-Israel,” said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami, whose organization calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and advocates for an increased U.S. role in finding diplomatic solutions to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its political action committee (PAC) operates independently from its advocacy and lobbying organization.

J Street has marketed itself as an alternative to the more hawkish views that it claims dominate many organizations. Ben-Ami said its success proved “there isn’t a stranglehold” or “monopoly” on “where political support” for Israel comes from.

Ben-Ami said he hoped to see less support for measures “critical” of the peace process, such as efforts to curb U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as less “hawkish language” in letters and resolutions that regularly circulate in the House and Senate dealing with Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the summer, J Street protested an appearance by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at a pro-Israel gathering organized by the Rev. John Hagee and the decision, ultimately reversed, by Jewish organizations to invite Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to an anti-Iran rally.

More important than any of these efforts, or the candidates J Street helped elect to Congress, may be the new president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, pro-Israel legislators and activists said.

With President-elect Barack Obama having pledged to step up U.S. involvement and the Bush administration already in the midst of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks, J Street’s desire for robust American engagement is likely to be a centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy in the coming months and years.

Many liberals have hailed J Street as a much-needed alternative and corrective to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), even though the influential pro-Israel lobby was advocating a two-state solution and U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.

At the same time, some veteran voices have been quick to slam J Street.

“They’re willing to take a very dovish view,” and, “of course, there’s some support out there,” said Morris Amitay, founder and treasurer of the political action committee, Washington PAC, and a former AIPAC executive director. However, he said, “the proof will be in the pudding” — whether the pro-Israel resolutions dealing with the peace process, like the ones to which Ben-Ami referred, receive anything less than the 400 votes they customarily get in the House. Amitay said he was glad to be on the 400-vote side.

One concrete measure of J Street’s success, some observers said, was its ability to convince candidates, including incumbents, to accept its endorsement.

“Receiving J Street’s endorsement is akin to a declaration of independence on Mideast policy. It means foregoing the financial support of the big, right-leaning PACs, and that requires real courage,” a pro-Israel organization official said.

Amitay, a critic of J Street from its birth — he called the group part of the “blame Israel first” crowd — announced that his organization would not back any candidate that took J Street’s endorsement. Along those lines, he told J Street endorsee Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) that he would no longer benefit from Washington PAC donations.

Amitay said he was planning to speak with two other Washington PAC beneficiaries who also received the J Street hechsher. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) is one of them.

Thirty-two of the 41 candidates J Street backed won election, with 24 of the winners being incumbents. Two of those endorsed — Democrats Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio and Ethan Berkowitz of Alaska — are in races that had yet to be called as of press time.

J Street employed a less traditional fundraising approach in outraising dozens of other pro-Israel PACs that, in some cases, have been around for decades. At nearly all other pro-Israel PACs, money is donated to the PAC, whose leadership takes that pool and decides which candidates should receive funds. There is a limit of $5,000 per candidate per election — the primary and the general election — for a total of $10,000 per cycle.

J Street did raise a small amount using the conventional method, but most of its donations came with the organization acting as a “conduit,” Ben-Ami explained. For example, a donor would pledge to give J Street $1,000, and J Street would “recommend” certain candidates to support. The donor then would decide where to direct his or her dollars and write a check to J Street, which would subsequently cut a check to those candidates, accompanied by information outlining specifically who the money came from.

Utilizing this method allowed J Street to raise unlimited amounts for its endorsees, because contributions counted against the $4,600 limit on donations that an individual can give to a specific candidate during an election cycle, not the $10,000-per-candidate restriction on political action committees.

So, for example, J Street managed to send $91,000 to Democrat Jeff Merkley in his race against incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), while PACs using the more traditional method would only have been able to distribute $10,000 to a candidate in the race.