Four years ago, there was some hope in Washington that J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish lobbying group, could someday provide a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
No one expected J Street to seriously challenge AIPAC after just four years. But the organization’s track record to date gives some cause for concern with regard to the direction its heading in.
J Street has had some controversial missteps in its time. For example, its waffling on the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-09, and its dissembling response when it was revealed that left-wing magnate George Soros had been one of its key initial funders.
This time their investment in Peter Beinart presented a hurdle for them. Beinart published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for what he regrettably termed “Zionist BDS,” which is simply a new name for a policy long advocated by left-wing groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and more center-left groups like Americans for Peace Now. It basically advocates for the boycott of settlement products, services and venues.
Just a few days before Beinart appeared as one of the key figures at their conference, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami gave an interview to Iran/Israel hawk Jeffrey Goldberg where he strongly criticized Beinart’s stance. The result, which became apparent when the issue came up during one of the plenaries, was a conference audience that was split over the issue.
This was not the only controversial event. J Street’s decision to feature former Israeli prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought criticism from Palestinian human rights groups, mostly in Gaza, who were concerned about this honor being bestowed on someone who they consider a war criminal. This also caused some problems for J Street’s ally group, B’Tselem, which works with many Palestinian human rights groups and was a participating organization in the conference.
One can argue about the pros and cons of these moves by J Street. But of greater concern is the question of whether J Street is really able to impact matters on Capitol Hill.
At AIPAC’s conference this year all the leading Republican presidential candidates (except for Ron Paul) spoke and were warmly welcomed. President Obama himself spoke to the crowd, as did his Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta. Leading members of Congress, including Mitch McConnell, Carl Levin, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Cantor and others were also featured.
For its part J Street got Anthony Blinken, who is Joe Biden’s senior foreign policy aide, and key Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, whose role has virtually no connection to Middle East policy. That might not seem so bad until you consider that Obama sent his National Security Adviser, Jim Jones, to J Street’s first conference, and Middle East point man, Dennis Ross to its last one.
There is a clear decline in Obama’s regard and concern for J Street being reflected here.
Congress is no different. Yes, there was a congressional panel at J Street’s conference. But the attendees, all Democrats, are not among those who are particularly influential on issues regarding Israel. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson, Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, Chellie Pingree and David Price spoke at the conference, but will take little influence on J Street’s issues back with them to the House of Representatives.
Some have noted that J Street’s conference this year was more about connecting with Israel and establishing more firmly, in centrist eyes, its pro-Israel bona fides.
Indeed, there certainly was a more distinctly Israeli feel about this conference. The most morally clear and persuasive speaker, to my ears, was newly-elected chairwoman of the left-Zionist Meretz Party, Zehava Galon. And there were several Knesset members present, some of whom are, like Amram Mitzna, fairly prominent.
Yet in the end all the Knesset members were from either the Labor Party or Meretz. Those two parties together control only 11 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
It’s true that the Israeli embassy reversed their previous stance and sent an emissary to this year’s conference. Ehud Olmert said, and J Street contends, that this is very important and perhaps it is. But one could also see it as a calculation which concludes that J Street is not much of a threat to the Netanyahu government’s efforts in the US, and that the attempt to ostracize J Street does more to boost their position than a condescending speech like Baruch Binah’s does.
Olmert’s appearance might be considered significant as well. Yet Olmert has faded from public view in Israel because of the scandal which forced him from office three years ago. While the issue is certainly not one that is uncommon in Israeli politics, Olmert is the only Israeli Prime Minister to leave office due to such a scandal, and he is facing indictment.
Shimon Peres, who made the trip to appear at AIPAC, sent J Street a pep talk by video.
So what are the prospects for J Street’s future?
J Street has one reason to exist, and that is to change the playing field in Washington, to establish a real force that serves as another option to AIPAC and can cover elected officials who wish to support the policies that AIPAC opposes.
I’ve been to all three of their conferences, and each of the last two have felt like that goal was farther away than the one before. Polls suggest J Street represents the view of a silent majority of Jews and non-Jews, certainly among Democrats, and probably among old-time, realist-style Republicans. But it sure doesn’t seem that way from the ground or at their conferences.
Most importantly, it doesn’t look that way from Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue.