J Street, Oren mending fences—but wariness lingers

The two sides have been talking with goal of ending hot-cold feud that dominated professional Jewish chatter in latter part of last year.

jeremy ben-ami j street 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jeremy ben-ami j street 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

WASHINGTON - After months of high-profile feuding, thebreakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador toWashington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking - through the media and directly inprivate - with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominatedmuch professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in therapprochement, much needs to be bridged - underscored by a persistentIsraeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet ina Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles inwhich he said that the organization had moved "much more into themainstream." It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of thegroup 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 theirposition on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has nowcome and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; ithas condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the Britishcourt’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Streetmuch more into the mainstream."

Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue theirefforts 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 theambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements JStreet has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations totreat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new USsanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs US pressure on Israel and thePalestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored to cast theembassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate insome recent statements. At a time when some voices on the left werecriticizing Israel's rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy todistract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year'sGaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

"Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to thevery best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the bestof what that country represents as the national home of the Jewishpeople," J Street said. "It did, in this instance, serve as a realmodel for the international community. We urge those who mightotherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel forreacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time ofurgent international need."

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when hedelivered a speech at University of California, Irvine - a hotbed ofanti-Israel activism - J Street was calling for civility.

"We believe that universities should be a place for an honestdiscussion about tough issues," the group said. "While appropriate andrespectful protests are a legitimate and important part of theconversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive andinflammatory 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 clearour different positions," Susskind said. "We've said all along we wouldwelcome 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 ithad developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when theorganization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamasequally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December thatthe time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran's energysector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures.Israel considers containing Iran's nuclear ambitions its signatureissue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with astated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum --and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend thegroup’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a groupof 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 StateDepartment's anti-Semitism envoy -- an official with whom he would intheory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranksbehind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was notunhappy with Rosenthal's remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40-50 members of the U.S. Houseof Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations.Congressional insiders say J Street's green light in December for Iransanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditionallobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turnsout to officially "overwhelming": 412-12. That sent the Obamaadministration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingnessto take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership inIsrael in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques willhave an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the regionthis week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders -- but inIsrael, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy primeministers.

There's a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet onthe "must call" list for the embassy when the ambassador calls ameeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching thedevelopments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outsetby "punching up" -- issuing blistering attacks on groups that werelarger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel andThe Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street's recent efforts to pullback from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, JStreet Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christiangroup hoped to "precipitate" an Armageddon through support forright-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informedby political, not theological, sympathies for Israel -- and in anycase, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world.

"J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity throughcontroversy without considering the harm that policy does to thepro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.

Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-area property developer who has been amajor 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 enoughfights," said Erlbaum, who was among the most vocal critics of thedecision by the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania to rent spaceto J Street for a recent event. "I don't think J Street has changed itsspots. You would think that Israel would be quite defensive about anygroup that believes that the American government should force Israel todo 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 AmericanJewish Organizations, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was lessthan encouraging when asked about J Street.

"The thing that troubles me is that they don't present themselves asto what they really are," Ayalon said in remarks reprinted on theForeign Ministry Web site. "They should not call themselvespro-Israeli."

That echoed a dismissal dished out earlier this month by YuliEdelstein, the Diaspora affairs minister, who would not meet with JStreet representatives.

"There's a very simple rule, and I leave it with a question mark: IfJ Street says it is able to represent every government in Israel, maybethey can be a lobby," he said. "If they can't be a lobby, callthemselves Young Liberal Jews for whatever, for Better Jewish CommunalLife 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 howAmerican lobbies that are not agents of foreign governments operate,"he said. "We don't claim to, and in fact do not, represent thegovernment of Israel. We explicitly reserve the right to agree with itat times and to disagree with it at times -- as we do with the U.S.government.

Such exchanges appear to be diminishing, however.

Susskind, hired by J Street in part because his "establishment" pastas Washington director for the umbrella Jewish policy body, the JewishCouncil for Public Affairs, said he anticipated more friendliness goingforward.

"I'm very happy to see [Oren’s] positive comments," he said. "I'm looking forward to the relationship growing."