J’lem sees J Street inch to consensus

Lobby denies shift in positions, says Israel just knows it better now.

April 30, 2010 02:51
4 minute read.
Jeremy Ben Ami, head of J Street

J Street 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Israeli officials expressed satisfaction in recent days over what they are calling a “noticeable shift to the center” in the political stances of left-wing American Jewish lobby group J Street.

The Washington-based “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, which turns two this month, has faced mistrust from Israeli officials over some of its past positions, such as its 2008 rejection of the need for sanctions against the Iranian regime, and the perception that it placed much of the fault for the stalled peace process on Israel.

JCall, the ‘European J Street,’ to be launched in Brussels

Over the past few months, however, these positions have slowly shifted, Israeli officials say.

According to one senior Prime Minister’s Office official, echoing the sentiments of several officials who have spoken with The Jerusalem Post recently, “we’ve noted the change favorably. It’s not our job to give them points. They represent their members, and they’ve made that clear from the start. But we have observed this change.”

Last October, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, refused to address a J Street policy conference in Washington, reportedly telling a Conservative Movement convention two months later that the lobby was “significantly out of the mainstream” and represented “a unique problem in that... it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments.”

Since then, however, Israeli officials have come to believe that the organization’s views – most importantly on Iran – have aligned more closely with Israel’s. The group supported Iran sanctions legislation in Congress in recent months, and most recently held a celebration for Israel’s Independence Day and actively campaigned against the Israel-divestment drive at the University of California, Berkeley, campus.

Last week, J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, finally met with Oren at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

“The meeting builds on months of discussions between the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby and the embassy, aimed at clarifying the Israeli government’s understanding of J Street’s views,” the organization explained in a statement.

The meeting “included a forthright discussion of points of agreement and disagreement,” it said.

Over the past three days, J Street leaders have been on a trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. They were welcomed by the Israeli establishment with open arms, meeting President Shimon Peres, senior Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer and others.

The trip includes meetings in Ramallah with top Palestinian leaders and a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman.

For its part, J Street has rejected the claim that its positions are shifting, saying it is the Israelis who have come to better understand them.

There is “absolutely no” change, according to Ben-Ami.

“We’re true to very basic principles: that the State of Israel is near and dear to us and we are concerned about its security, and that a two-state solution to this conflict is not [merely] a nice idea, but an existential necessity for Israel to remain a Jewish democracy,” he told the Post on Wednesday.

“We’re smack in the center” in terms of American Jews’ political beliefs, “and of the political dialogue [in Israel] as well,” he insisted.

J Street’s raison d’etre, Ben-Ami continued, is to redress “the failure of not just AIPAC, but the entirety of the voices that speak for our community,” to represent this position.

“As you can see in the Ron Lauder ad or the Mort Zuckerman op-ed [which in the past two weeks blasted the Obama administration for its position on Israeli construction in Jerusalem], the voices that speak most loudly [for the community] are wrong, and they don’t speak for a majority of Jews,” asserted Ben-Ami. “J Street is speaking for the majority that believes that Israel and the Palestinians must end this conflict now.”

But it’s not just the Israelis who have sensed a shift. Some of the group’s former supporters on the far-left of the American Jewish spectrum are growing disenchanted by the organization’s positions.

“I often defend J Street from my readers who accuse it of being ‘AIPAC lite,’” blogger Richard Silverstein wrote this week. However, in the wake of an interview in which Ben-Ami praised AIPAC’s role in strengthening the US-Israel relationship, “I find it harder and harder to do this.”

Such statements from J Street “make clear that there is less and less daylight between J Street and AIPAC,” Silverstein concluded.

Ben-Ami was unmoved.

“I don’t know what they thought we were and what it is that they want,” he said of the disappointed activists, “but what we stand for is in line with the center of the American Jewish community, and with the majority of people we meet in Israel, who clearly recognize that the time has come to end this conflict, that painful compromises must be made.”  

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