Just a few years ago, the dovish Israel lobby J Street was anathema to most mainstream politicians in Israel. But at the group’s fourth national conference, perhaps the most notable feature was the range of public officials it drew from across Israel’s Jewish political spectrum.
“Why should there be any problem?” asked Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, when asked if he expected any repercussions for his decision to attend the lobby’s conference. “I’m used to arguing with leftists for 30 years.”
Yitzhak Vaknin, a member of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, explained his presence at the conference, saying, “I believe we should love every Jew in the world.”
And Meir Sheetrit of the Hatnuah party, which is part of Netanyahu’s coalition, added: “We’re talking to everyone. I don’t see any problem.”
It was a lonely, critical voice in Israel that served as a reminder that viewing J Street as a legitimate partner for dialogue was, until not so long ago, far from the Israeli consensus.
“I am asking them — dear MKs, are these your friends? Are these the elements with whom you choose to identify?” Ayelet Shaked from the right-wing Ha’Bayit Ha’Yehudi party wrote on her Facebook page. “Your participation in the conference grants legitimacy to extreme and unbalanced criticism of Israel.”
If so, it was a stance legitimated not just by a range of Israeli politicians, but also by Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared at the conference as a keynote speaker.
But the road to the heart of Israel’s political consensus has been tied, to a great extent, to J Street’s willingness to accept a variety of views, many of which are far away from the group’s opening position. An organization that started off as the home for the progressive left has since found itself increasingly broadening its tent to include more centrist voices.