J Street Swims Upstream in Election Year

Group Targets Dovish Message at Obama Democrats

Not Easy for J Street: J Street’s pro-peace message may be a tough sell during an election year in which even liberals are moving to the right on Israel.
liz malby
Not Easy for J Street: J Street’s pro-peace message may be a tough sell during an election year in which even liberals are moving to the right on Israel.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 28, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
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“These are two different things,” he said, “how people vote and how they think about issues.” He argued that based on current and historic survey data, Jewish voters still do not see Israel as a deciding factor when they go to the polls. He also argued that there is no significant shift away from Democratic candidates.

Despite J Street’s willingness to go to bat for Obama and to make the case for a pro-Israel view that echoes that of the president, relations between the dovish lobby and the White House are less than rosy. J Street has made clear it is not pleased with Obama moving the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the back burner.

The White House, on the other hand, has been giving J Street a dose of tough love, perhaps with one eye on November. The lobby had asked the White House to send Jack Lew, the newly appointed chief of staff, to represent the Obama administration at its conference. Lew could be a big catch for J Street, since it would be his first address at a major Jewish event. The administration, however, offered to dispatch Jarrett, a frequent speaker at Jewish gatherings.

J Street initially balked at the offer and instead agreed to host Tony Blinken, vice president Joe Biden’s national security adviser. Later the lobby asked to add Jarrett as an additional speaker.

Blinken, in his March 26 address, repeated the exact talking points made by Obama in his speech to the AIPAC conference three weeks earlier, an effort, according to administration sources, to make clear that Obama carries the same message to hawkish and dovish groups alike.

Though not asked directly about it, Blinken tried to address the lobby’s sense of disappointment with Obama’s lack of activity on the peace process front.

“Just because we don’t say something, or you don’t see something, doesn’t mean we’re not doing it,” Blinken told the crowd in a comment that did not appear in his prepared remarks.

While struggling to remain close to the Obama administration, which has focused its appeal on the hawkish end of the American Jewish political spectrum, J Street is making strides toward forging a more positive working relationship with the Israeli government and public. The group has been shifting gradually toward the mainstream, a move demonstrated by its clear rejection of author Peter Beinart’s call for a boycott of Israeli settlements. There was also no sign of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel on the conference’s agenda.

This move did not go unnoticed by the Israeli government, which in the past distanced itself from any formal ties with the pro-peace lobby. This year, the Israeli Embassy in Washington sent Deputy Chief of Mission Baruch Binah to deliver the first-ever address of an Israeli official to the J Street conference. It was not an easy speech for J Street’s ears, as Binah listed Israeli grievances with the organization, stressing that “pressures on the elected government of Israel can present [Israel] with a problem.”

Still, Binah’s appearance, complimented by a warm public embrace by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and a schedule packed with Israeli politicians and social activists, helps J Street bolster its acceptance into the circle of pro-Israel groups.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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