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Israel lobby aided Hill visits for U.N. report author

S. African excoriated Gaza war campaign

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J Street — the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group — facilitated meetings between members of Congress and South African Judge Richard Goldstone, author of a U.N. report that accused the Jewish state of systematic war crimes in its three-week military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

Colette Avital — a former member of Israel's parliament, from the center-left Labor Party and until recently J Street's liaison in Israel — told The Washington Times that her decision to resign her post with J Street earlier this year was a result in part of the group's "connection to Judge Goldstone."

"When Judge Goldstone came to Washington, [J Street leaders were] suggesting that they might help him set up his appointments on Capitol Hill," she said. Ms. Avital later disavowed knowledge of J Street's dealings with Judge Goldstone during a conference call arranged by J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

J Street, which bills itself as a liberal alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), acted on behalf of Judge Goldstone last fall, when the Obama administration was trying to tamp down the report at the United Nations.

The chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had also been circulating a bipartisan resolution condemning Judge Goldstone's report before the retired South African jurist came to Washington.

The Goldstone Report is widely viewed as slanderous toward the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) among the American Jewish community and in Israel. It accuses the IDF of deliberately targeting civilians in the ground and air war in Gaza, which resulted in at least 1,000 Palestinian deaths. The White House also has criticized the report.

J Street's promotion of Judge Goldstone in Congress is raising questions about J Street's identity as a pro-Israel organization.

J Street, in its public statements on the Goldstone Report, has neither condemned nor endorsed its substance.

In a statement provided to The Washington Times this week, Mr. Ben-Ami said, "J Street did not host, arrange or facilitate any visit to Washington, D.C., by Judge Richard Goldstone."

He went on to say, however, that "J Street staff spoke to colleagues at the organizations coordinating the meetings and, at their behest, reached out to a handful of congressional staff to inquire whether members would be interested in seeing Judge Goldstone."

He added, "We believed it to be a good idea for him and for members of Congress to meet personally, but we declined to play a role in hosting, convening or attending any of the meetings."

When asked later how many congressional offices had been contacted, a J Street staffer told the Times that it was "two or three." Mr. Ben-Ami later said he did not remember reaching out to Congress at all.

A senior officer of J Street, however, played a central role in arranging Judge Goldstone's visit.

Judge Goldstone told The Times in an interview that he had sought the meetings after a discussion with longtime friend Morton H. Halperin — president of the Open Society Institute (OSI) and one of five senior officers at J Street, according to the group's federal tax returns. Those forms list Mr. Halperin as a "director," and say he spends 10 hours a week on J Street business.

"He suggested — and I agreed — that it would be a good idea for me to meet with some of the leading members of Congress," Judge Goldstone said. "I thought it was important to correct the misimpressions." He added that Mr. Halperin had hand-delivered a personal letter he had written to members of Congress.

Judge Goldstone said he remembers attending "10 or 12" meetings. J Street co-founder Daniel Levy, who accompanied the judge to several of the parleys, said that the New America Foundation (NAF) — whose Middle East Task Force he co-chairs — had also hosted a lunch with Judge Goldstone for "a group of analysts and Middle East wonks." The judge, Mr. Levy, and J Street all declined to identify the members of Congress.

All three organizations associated with Judge Goldstone's visit to Washington — J Street, NAF and OSI — receive substantial funding from Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, a fierce critic of AIPAC and Israeli policies.

OSI controls nearly $2 billion in assets provided by Mr. Soros over the years. NAF, in turn, received $855,000 from OSI in 2009, though the money was not set aside for the think tank's Middle East program. The Times disclosed last week that J Street had received $750,000 from Mr. Soros and his family despite repeated denials from the group that it had received any funding from Mr. Soros in the past.

Judge Goldstone said that he "was keen to meet with [members of Congress] because of what I considered to be both an unfortunate and factually incorrect resolution." J Street said at the time that it was "unable to support" the resolution as written. It subsequently passed the House by a vote of 344-36.

The United Nations' Human Rights Council appointed Judge Goldstone to lead its "Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict" in April 2009, nearly four months after the conflict ended.

The 575-page document that followed accused both Israel and Hamas of "war crimes" and "possible crimes against humanity" and urged both parties to conduct credible investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.

But even Israeli human rights organizations that cooperated with Judge Goldstone's commission criticized the final report.

"I was disturbed by the framing of Israel's military operation as part of 'an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience,'" wrote Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem, Israel's leading human rights group, in the Huffington Post after the report's release. "The facts presented in the report itself would not seem to support such a far-reaching conclusion. In light of the sweeping conclusions regarding Israel, the very careful phrasing regarding Hamas abuses is particularly conspicuous."

Israel did not cooperate with Judge Goldstone's commission.

The report instantly made the judge political poison in some quarters in Israel. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, famously said last year that Israel faces three major threats — "the Iranian nuclear program, rockets aimed at our civilians, and Goldstone" — while its president, Shimon Peres, said that the report "gives de facto legitimacy to terrorist initiatives and ignores the obligation and right of every country to defend itself."

Most of the organized American Jewish community, from left to right, echoed the criticism.

"Our organization joined a wide spectrum of Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill in vocally condemning the Goldstone Report for what it was — namely, a one-sided attack on Israel," said David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "I would argue that the Goldstone Report was less of a left-versus-right issue than a simple issue of right and wrong."

Mr. Ben-Ami, in his statement to The Times, noted that J Street "criticized the process at the U.N. Human Rights Council that led to his report and urged the U.S. to veto a possible Security Council resolution based on the report." Mr. Ben-Ami, however, would not condemn or endorse the report's substance.

Judge Goldstone has said since the release of his report that he would urge international prosecutions against Israeli officials if they were not held accountable in Israel.

Ms. Avital, who initially said she was troubled by J Street's ties to Judge Goldstone, is scheduled as a guest speaker at J Street events next month.

After speaking with Mr. Ben-Ami, Ms. Avital changed her story during a conference call and said, "About Goldstone I am very firm, I don't know anything about J Street organizing things in the United States. There may have been disagreements about how we each saw the Goldstone Report. I never mentioned that they organized these things for Goldstone."

However, The Times has an audio recording of the conversation that contradicts her later statements.

Ms. Avital said during the initial interview that she continues to think J Street "is a good organization."

"We didn't always see eye to eye on their priorities, including in Israel, so we parted ways — as friends," she said.

"I really don't want to speak about my agreements or disagreements with them," she said. "Honestly, I think they have enough problems as it is."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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