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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
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J Street, Israeli Envoy Mending Fences – But Wariness Lingers

By: JTA

WASHINGTON – After months of high-profile feuding, the 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 endinhttp://www.jewishpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3770&action=edit#g 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.”

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.

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

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 Israeli 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.

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 website. “They should not call themselves pro-Israeli.”

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

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.”

(JTA)

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