J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby that was shunned in its early years by Israeli government officials, is now making another step toward the acceptance by Israeli politicians.
This coming September, J Street will host, for the first time, a member of Knesset from the ruling Likud Party and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at its annual conference in Washington.
Tzachi Hanegbi, a hardliner turned peace supporter, will be the first member of the Likud to participate in a J Street event. Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen who was a fighter in the Irgun underground organization operating before the establishment of the State of Israel and who later became a right-wing politician.
Hanegbi’s first steps in politics were as a pro-settlers activist and he was one a handful of Israelis who refused to evacuate the settlement of Yamit during the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai which was part of its peace agreement with Egypt.
He was also a vocal critic of the Peace Now movement during the 1980’s.
In the Knesset, Hanegbi was first elected in 1988 as part of the Likud Party, but in 2005 he broke off with other members led by Ariel Sharon to establish the more moderate Kadima party. Later Hanegbi returned to the Likud and has since spoken in favor of a two-state solution. Still, in interviews and statements Hanegbi has stressed the responsibility of the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace negotiations.
Hanegbi’s participation at the J Street conference, a result of outreach efforts conducted by the lobby’s office in Israel, is viewed by organizers as a mark of success. It is a sign, said Jessica Rosenblum, the group’s director of media and communications, “of the growing acceptance of J Street and the growing recognition of the common purpose,” of advancing a two-state solution.
J Street’s founding in 2008 was initially met with a cold shoulder by the Israeli government. Officials refused to meet with the lobby’s activists and the Israeli embassy boycotted its events. Since, however, the group established working relations with the embassy and an Israel senior diplomat delivered a speech at last year’s conference gala dinner. Hanegbi’s participation will signal yet another step by J Street away from its lefty image and closer to the Israeli mainstream.
Another first at this year’s conference will be the participation of Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas at the event. Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party has supported in the past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but has since shifted to the right. Currently it is not a member of the Netanyahu governing coalition.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.