WASHINGTON - After months of high-profile feuding, the
breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to
Washington appear to be reconciling.
The two sides have been talking - through the media and directly in
private - with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated
much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.
Both sides say that while there have been strides in the
rapprochement, much needs to be bridged - underscored by a persistent
Israeli government wariness of the group.
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in
a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in
which he said that the organization had moved "much more into the
mainstream." It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the
group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.
“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,”
Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their
position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now
come and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it
has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British
court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street
much more into the mainstream."
Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue their
efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street,
that they see as being hostile to Israel.
The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the
ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J
Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to
treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new US
sanctions against Iran.
For its part J Street, which backs US pressure on Israel and the
Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored to cast the
embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate in
some recent statements. At a time when some voices on the left were
criticizing Israel's rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to
distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year's
Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.
"Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the
very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best
of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish
people," J Street said. "It did, in this instance, serve as a real
model for the international community. We urge those who might
otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for
reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of
urgent international need."
And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he
delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine - a hotbed of
anti-Israel activism - J Street was calling for civility.
"We believe that universities should be a place for an honest
discussion about tough issues," the group said. "While appropriate and
respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the
conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive and
inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable."
Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.
"We've been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear
our different positions," Susskind said. "We've said all along we would
welcome a good productive relationship with them."
Officials close to the Israei Embassy confirmed the conversations.
J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it
had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the
organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas
equally for the Gaza war.
Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that
the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran's energy
sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures.
Israel considers containing Iran's nuclear ambitions its signature
issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.
Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a
stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum --
and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the
group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group
of Conservative rabbis that J Street's views are dangerous for Israel.
Neither side needed the tension. Oren's description of the group as
"dangerous" earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State
Department's anti-Semitism envoy -- an official with whom he would in
theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks
behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not
unhappy with Rosenthal's remarks.
J Street has a dependable cadre of 40-50 members of the U.S. House
of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations.
Congressional insiders say J Street's green light in December for Iran
sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional
lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns
out to officially "overwhelming": 412-12. That sent the Obama
administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.
And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness
to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in
Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will
have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region
this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders -- but in
Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime
There's a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on
the "must call" list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a
meeting of the Jewish leadership.
Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the
developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset
by "punching up" -- issuing blistering attacks on groups that were
larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel and
The Israel Project.
CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street's recent efforts to pull
back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J
Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian
group hoped to "precipitate" an Armageddon through support for
right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed
by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel -- and in any
case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world.
"J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through
controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the
pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.
Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-area property developer who has been a
major giver to an array of centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups,
said Oren was being politic where it was unwarranted.
"He's trying to not pick any additional fights, there are enough
fights," said Erlbaum, who was among the most vocal critics of the
decision by the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania to rent space
to J Street for a recent event. "I don't think J Street has changed its
spots. You would think that Israel would be quite defensive about any
group that believes that the American government should force Israel to
do things that are against its interests."
Top Israeli officials remain wary, as the snub of the congressional delegation shows.
Meeting Tuesday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organizations, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was less
than encouraging when asked about J Street.
"The thing that troubles me is that they don't present themselves as
to what they really are," Ayalon said in remarks reprinted on the
Foreign Ministry Web site. "They should not call themselves
That echoed a dismissal dished out earlier this month by Yuli
Edelstein, the Diaspora affairs minister, who would not meet with J
"There's a very simple rule, and I leave it with a question mark: If
J Street says it is able to represent every government in Israel, maybe
they can be a lobby," he said. "If they can't be a lobby, call
themselves Young Liberal Jews for whatever, for Better Jewish Communal
Life in the United States, and then we'll speak with them."
In fact, a number of pro-Israel groups on the left and right have long been critical of Israeli government policies.
In a statement e-mailed to JTA, Ben Ami said Edelstein was setting an impossible benchmark for any U.S. Jewish group to meet.
"The minister clearly misunderstands what J Street is and how
American lobbies that are not agents of foreign governments operate,"
he said. "We don't claim to, and in fact do not, represent the
government of Israel. We explicitly reserve the right to agree with it
at times and to disagree with it at times -- as we do with the U.S.
Such exchanges appear to be diminishing, however.
Susskind, hired by J Street in part because his "establishment" past
as Washington director for the umbrella Jewish policy body, the Jewish
Council for Public Affairs, said he anticipated more friendliness going
"I'm very happy to see [Oren’s] positive comments," he said. "I'm looking forward to the relationship growing."