J Street, Oren mending fences — but wariness lingers

Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren, left, and J Street irector Jeremy Ben-Ami are reconciling after having heated exchanges in 2009 on some of the dovish pro-Israel lobby's positions.<br />
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Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren, left, and J Street irector Jeremy Ben-Ami are reconciling after having heated exchanges in 2009 on some of the dovish pro-Israel lobby’s positions.
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WASHINGTON (JTA) — After months of high-profile feuding, the breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to Washington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking — through the media and directly in private — with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in the rapprochement, much needs to be bridged — underscored by a persistent Israeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in which he said that the organization had moved "much more into the mainstream." It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.

“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream."

Oren’s comments come as some Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists continue their efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street, that they see as being hostile to Israel.

The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored to cast the embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate in some recent statements. At a time when some voices on the left were criticizing Israel’s rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year’s Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

"Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish people," J Street said. "It did, in this instance, serve as a real model for the international community. We urge those who might otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of urgent international need."

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — J Street was calling for civility.

"We believe that universities should be a place for an honest discussion about tough issues," the group said. "While appropriate and respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive and inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable."

Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.

"We’ve been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear our different positions," Susskind said. "We’ve said all along we would welcome a good productive relationship with them."

Officials close to the Israei Embassy confirmed the conversations.

J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas equally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures. Israel considers containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions its signature issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum — and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group of Conservative rabbis that J Street’s views are dangerous for Israel.

Neither side needed the tension. Oren’s description of the group as "dangerous" earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy — an official with whom he would in theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not unhappy with Rosenthal’s remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40-50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations. Congressional insiders say J Street’s green light in December for Iran sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns out to officially "overwhelming": 412-12. That sent the Obama administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders — but in Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers.

There’s a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on the "must call" list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a meeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset by "punching up" — issuing blistering attacks on groups that were larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel and The Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street’s recent efforts to pull back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian group hoped to "precipitate" an Armageddon through support for right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel — and in any case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world.

"J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.

Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-area property developer who has been a major giver to an array of centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups, said Oren was being politic where it was unwarranted.

"He’s trying to not pick any additional fights, there are enough fights," said Erlbaum, who was among the most vocal critics of the decision by the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania to rent space to J Street for a recent event. "I don’t think J Street has changed its spots. You would think that Israel would be quite defensive about any group that believes that the American government should force Israel to do things that are against its interests."

Top Israeli officials remain wary, as the snub of the congressional delegation shows.

Meeting Tuesday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was less than encouraging when asked about J Street.

"The thing that troubles me is that they don’t present themselves as to what they really are," Ayalon said in remarks reprinted on the Foreign Ministry Web site. "They should not call themselves pro-Israeli."

Reports later surfaced that not only did Ayalon snub the congressional delegation touring with J Street, he pressed others in government to do so. Meridor met with the group nonetheless.

That echoed a dismissal dished out earlier this month by Yuli Edelstein, the Diaspora affairs minister, who would not meet with J Street representatives.

"There’s a very simple rule, and I leave it with a question mark: If J Street says it is able to represent every government in Israel, maybe they can be a lobby," he said. "If they can’t be a lobby, call themselves Young Liberal Jews for whatever, for Better Jewish Communal Life in the United States, and then we’ll speak with them."

In fact, a number of pro-Israel groups on the left and right have long been critical of Israeli government policies.

In a statement e-mailed to JTA, Ben Ami said Edelstein was setting an impossible benchmark for any U.S. Jewish group to meet.

"The minister clearly misunderstands what J Street is and how American lobbies that are not agents of foreign governments operate," he said. "We don’t claim to, and in fact do not, represent the government of Israel. We explicitly reserve the right to agree with it at times and to disagree with it at times — as we do with the U.S. government.

Such exchanges appear to be diminishing, however.

Susskind, hired by J Street in part because his "establishment" past as Washington director for the umbrella Jewish policy body, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he anticipated more friendliness going forward.

"I’m very happy to see [Oren’s] positive comments," he said. "I’m looking forward to the relationship growing."

 
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