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Ben-Ami was among more than 20 Jewish community leaders, including some from AIPAC, who met Obama on Thursday to provide input for his first trip as president to Israel later this month.
J Street describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” It is more supportive than many other Jewish groups of a “two-state” Middle East agreement leading to an independent Palestinian state and a secure Israel.
Ben-Ami, who served as an aide to then President Bill Clinton and worked on a series of Democratic political campaigns, founded the group in his basement five years ago.
Today it says it has 50 staff, 15,000 donors and some 180,000 supporters. Its political action committee distributed $1.8 million to candidates last year.
But the going has not been easy. Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, declined an invitation to speak at the group’s inaugural 2009 conference - where Hagel delivered the keynote - although the two reportedly have since reconciled. The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2010, some politicians, including New York Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, publicly rejected J Street’s backing, under pressure from conservative Jewish American leaders and Israeli officials who said its positions were anti-Israel.
In last November’s election, it endorsed 71 candidates - all Democrats - for federal offices. While it’s unclear how influential the J Street endorsement was, 70 of the 71 won.
Just last year, after the United Nations approved the de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood, J Street successfully opposed efforts by more conservative groups to close the Palestinian office in Washington in retaliation. Ben-Ami counts that as a victory for J Street’s moderate position.
A possible sign of better relations with Israel came last month when members of a congressional delegation to Israel organized by J Street met with top government officials. Three years ago, Israel’s foreign ministry had boycotted the J Street delegation.
“In 2013, it’s fair to say that J Street has established its place as an important advocacy group in the larger pro-Israel community,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt under Clinton and to Israel from 2001 to 2005 during the administration of George W. Bush.