J Street Hopes To Return Focus to Peace at Annual Conference

Peter Beinart, Ehud Olmert To Be Featured Speakers

Meeting of Minds: Some 2,500 people are expected at the third annual J Street conference, which begins March 24. Above, a panel discussion at last year’s gathering.
courtesy of j street
Meeting of Minds: Some 2,500 people are expected at the third annual J Street conference, which begins March 24. Above, a panel discussion at last year’s gathering.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 25, 2012.
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As J Street, the self-styled pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby, opens its annual conference this year, it does so at a time of unparalleled growth for the group, and serious setbacks for its cause.

With talk of war with Iran dominating Israeli–American discourse, the dovish lobby is working hard to return the Palestinian issue to center stage.

Convincing the president, Congress and the Jewish community that there is a need for advancing Israel–Palestinian talks, even at a time when those bodies perceive other looming threats, will be a focus of J Street’s third annual conference. The gathering takes place in Washington on March 24–27, and it is expected to attract 2,500 people.

“What J Street will try to do is to make the point that it shouldn’t be a tradeoff, that it is not an either–or situation,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s president and founder, told the Forward on March 19.

The conference coincides with J Street’s fourth anniversary, and takes place at a time of major growth in the organization’s staff, donations and profile. But the meeting also takes place at what is arguably the Mideast peace process’s lowest point in years.

“The fact that everyone is talking about Iran has totally taken the wind out of the Palestinian issue,” said a Jewish community official who follows closely the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The official, who spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity, described this move as a victory for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is J Street’s key rival in the world of Jewish lobbying.

J Street has staked out a tough anti-war position regarding Iran, and has made clear it fully backs President Obama’s approach that now is the time for diplomacy, not for military action. This approach has set J Street and other dovish Jewish voices apart from the broader Jewish organized community, which has taken positions closer to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stresses Israel’s right to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

J Street has grown into a $7 million operation with 50 people on staff. But it is still trying to find the right balance between its “inside the beltway” leadership, which holds more moderate views, and its vast grassroots operation that is home to many progressive activists whose beliefs are at times outside the Jewish community’s mainstream.

The lobby has been struggling to steer clear of the radical image critics of the group had been trying to attach to it. In the past year J Street spoke out against a board member’s meeting with members of Hamas, and took a strong stand against “Israel Apartheid Week” events on U.S. America’s campuses.

Now, J Street is again at a crossroads.

In a March 19 New York Times op-ed, author Peter Beinart called for a boycott of products made in West Bank settlements. “Call it Zionist B.D.S.,” Beinart wrote.

For J Street, this is more than just another opinion piece. The lobby has embraced Beinart and he is one of the featured speakers at this year’s conference. J Street has spoken out against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and now faces the dilemma of whether to support Beinart’s call for a limited boycott.

Ben-Ami made clear in a statement he posted on J Street’s blog that while still welcoming Beinart to the conference, he rejects his call for boycott. “I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should focus on borders, not boycotts,” he wrote. Sources close to J Street’s board of directors said they believe some of the group’s lay leaders support Beinart’s idea.

Helping to tilt J Street’s balance away from the left and closer to the center is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is scheduled to speak at the conference’s gala dinner on March 26.

During his term in office Olmert, of the centrist Kadima party, presided over high-level talks with Palestinian leaders. These negotiations were meant to reach a permanent two-state solution. These negotiations were later described as the most serious attempt to finalize a deal. However, they did not bear fruit. In his less than three years as prime minister, Olmert, who resigned because of several criminal investigations into alleged corruption charges, also led Israel into two wars: in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in late 2008.

Since leaving office in 2009, Olmert has spent much of his time at the Jerusalem District Court where he has been fighting three criminal cases of alleged graft. A court decision is expected this summer. Olmert, who showed up in the courtroom three times a week for the past two and half years, stepped back from public activity and made only a few statements in which he criticized the Netanyahu government and called for advancing the peace process.

His decision to address J Street’s event drew fire from both right and left. On the right, Knesset Member Otniel Schneller, of Kadima, called on the former prime minister to cancel his visit to J Street, accusing the lobby of supporting Israel’s enemies. “The terrorists firing rockets,” Schneller said on March 13, “are not only supported by Iran and Hezbollah, but by the left-wing American Jewish organization J Street.” On the left, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem retracted an email it sent supporters about the event. B’Tselem made clear it has “grave suspicions” regarding human rights violations in Gaza during Olmert’s tenure.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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