Washington — As J Street, the self-styled pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby, opens its annual conference this year, it does so at a time of unparalleled growth for the group, and serious setbacks for its cause.
With talk of war with Iran dominating Israeli–American discourse, the dovish lobby is working hard to return the Palestinian issue to center stage.
Convincing the president, Congress and the Jewish community that there is a need for advancing Israel–Palestinian talks, even at a time when those bodies perceive other looming threats, will be a focus of J Street’s third annual conference. The gathering takes place in Washington on March 24–27, and it is expected to attract 2,500 people.
“What J Street will try to do is to make the point that it shouldn’t be a tradeoff, that it is not an either–or situation,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s president and founder, told the Forward on March 19.
The conference coincides with J Street’s fourth anniversary, and takes place at a time of major growth in the organization’s staff, donations and profile. But the meeting also takes place at what is arguably the Mideast peace process’s lowest point in years.
“The fact that everyone is talking about Iran has totally taken the wind out of the Palestinian issue,” said a Jewish community official who follows closely the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. The official, who spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity, described this move as a victory for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is J Street’s key rival in the world of Jewish lobbying.
J Street has staked out a tough anti-war position regarding Iran, and has made clear it fully backs President Obama’s approach that now is the time for diplomacy, not for military action. This approach has set J Street and other dovish Jewish voices apart from the broader Jewish organized community, which has taken positions closer to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stresses Israel’s right to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
J Street has grown into a $7 million operation with 50 people on staff. But it is still trying to find the right balance between its “inside the beltway” leadership, which holds more moderate views, and its vast grassroots operation that is home to many progressive activists whose beliefs are at times outside the Jewish community’s mainstream.