J Street, On Political Roll, Reaches Out to Israeli Center — and Even Right

Dovish Group's Conference Draws Wider Spectrum Than Ever

Bigger Tent: Tzipi Livni, the centrist leader of Israel’s peace talks delegation, addresses the J Street conference.
j street
Bigger Tent: Tzipi Livni, the centrist leader of Israel’s peace talks delegation, addresses the J Street conference.

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 04, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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The evidence was clearly seen throughout J Street’s conference, which took place from September 28 to September 30 in Washington’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Honored with the opening night’s keynote speech was Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister and chief peace negotiator. The choice was obvious: Livni is the leading voice in Israel promoting a two-state solution to end her country’s occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. She ran in the recent elections on a platform focused almost exclusively on this issue, which is the core of J Street’s mission statement.

But alongside her strong call for advancing the peace process, Livni also turned to the 2,800-strong J Street crowd with an appeal to keep in minds the threats that Israel is facing and to defend Israeli soldiers in the face of international condemnation. “Believe me, what they are doing is defending the State of Israel and trying to avoid civilian casualties,” she said. Her call, one usually associated with the hawkish side of the political system, won notably less applause than her call for peace with the Palestinians.

In its early days, J Street and its message were largely rejected by the Israeli government. Foreign ministry officials and diplomats were directed to shun the new lobby. Whatever contacts that did exist were kept to the lowest possible government level.

Back then, it was mainly opposition figures who attended the group’s events. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, refused to participate in the group’s inaugural conference, and later described the lobby as posing a “unique problem” to Israel.

“We are so far past that,” J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben Ami, told reporters on September 29. Indeed, the next evening, as J Street supporters convened for a gala dinner, Oren appeared on the giant screen, delivering a video greeting he prepared for the lobby.

“What is most significant is that the Israeli political spectrum, with all its shades, recognizes the American political spectrum, with all its shades,” Ben Ami said.

At the conference, J Street hosted for the first time a member of the ruling Likud party, Hanegbi, and a member of Shas, Vaknin, alongside the more obvious supporters of a two-state solution from the Labor Party, Meretz and the new Yesh Atid party.


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