At J Street Conference, Israeli Politicians Are Scarce

Disagreement Over U.N. Resolution Has Soured Relations Between the Lobby and the Jewish State

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 27, 2011.
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Although relations between J Street and the Israeli government had thawed in the past year, the group’s recent refusal to denounce a U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy has soured relations once again.

J Street’s second annual conference is, therefore, taking place without any official representatives of the Israeli government in attendance.

For the second year in a row, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., turned down J Street’s invitation to speak at the conference. And the embassy, which sent a low-level diplomat to the inaugural meeting, pulled out its participation altogether this year, citing the group’s statement on the U.N. resolution as the reason.

Hadar Susskind, J Street’s vice president of policy and strategy, said on Sunday that relations with Israeli officials had improved in the past year and included private discussions with Oren and the embassy staff, and meetings between by J Street delegations and Israeli officials in Jerusalem.

But all that was reversed in recent weeks, as attendance at the J Street conference proved to be a thorny issue for Israeli politicians, as well. Five members of Knesset are attending the conference, four from Kadima, Israel’s largest opposition party, and one from the Labor Party that has recently dropped out of the Netanyahu coalition government.

The Kadima officials were publicly chastised by members of their party who argued that participation in the Washington event would be seen as backing a group that is not supportive of Israel. Orit Zuaretz, a member of Knesset, revealed in a plenary discussion that J Street’s opponents phoned all 80,000 Kadima registered members, urging them to pressure her and her colleagues not to attend the meeting. Another legislator, Nachman Shai said in a Sunday panel discussion that since entering politics he had never received so many pleas as he did from those calling on him not to attend the J Street conference.

Expressing her support from afar was Israel’s opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Kadima’s leader. “The discussion within the pro-Israel community about how best to advance this goal should be based on respecting different opinions that are motivated by love and commitment to Israel’s security and its future,” Livni wrote in a letter to J Street leaders which was handed out to participants. By issuing the letter, Livni broke with the government’s boycott of J Street but she still stopped short of fully endorsing the group. “I know that in her heart she is with us,” said Shai. He added that that Livni also has to keep in mind her political ambition of becoming prime minister. “Tzipi has to make her own considerations,” Shai said, reminding the audience that she “is from the center, not from the left.”

Some of those Israeli politicians who did speak in Washington did not mince words. Daniel Ben-Simon, a Knesset member from the Labor party, expressed his doubts regarding the significance of the de-legitimization campaign against Israel. “I tend to not trust the honesty of some politicians in Israel when they say that the main enemy [of Israel] is some people who don’t accept us,” he said. Ben-Simon argued that criticism of Israel is, to a certain extent, a result of Israeli policies and that Israel needs not to fear such criticism. “We are a superpower,” he said, “We are not in Warsaw ghetto.” The Labor legislator accused those claiming Israel is under attack of adhering to “paranoia of right-wing politics headed by Netanyahu.”

Two other Kadima Knesset members, Yoel Hasson and Shlomo Molla, also harshly criticized the Netanyahu administration and praised the Palestinian government headed by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, arguing that it represents the best chance for peace in the region.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.


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