Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
At the inaugural J Street Conference in Washington on Tuesday, National Security Adviser James Jones discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of the U.S. in helping to resolve it.
At the inaugural J Street Conference in Washington on Tuesday, National Security Adviser James Jones discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of the U.S. in helping to resolve it. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration's national security adviser addressed a pro-Israel lobby in Washington on Tuesday. But it wasn't the well-known American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
It was a startup group, called J Street, which says it represents a missing voice in the foreign policy establishment. At the new group's first conference, Jewish activists, young and old, spent the past couple of days debating how best to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says he decided to address the group because there is value in debating the issues. But he says that J Street shouldn't try to counter the more well-established pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
"AIPAC does essential work. It has a huge organization, it maintains military support for Israel from the U.S. government," Yoffie says. "If [J Street] becomes an anti-AIPAC effort, then the American Jewish community will turn against it."
Laurie Osher of the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace says J Street is not meant to counter what AIPAC is doing, but to let members of Congress and the White House know that they can be both pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group takes its name from Washington, D.C., street names that run the alphabet. However, there is no J Street on the map.
"This organization started because the loudest voice in D.C. talking to our elected officials was AIPAC, and we felt they weren't talking enough about peace in the way we think about peace, which is not so focused on the armaments, but focused on the arguments," Osher says.
J Street is just 18 months old. This week's conference drew 1,500 supporters, according to its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. He says more than 150 members of Congress agreed to be on the host committee for J Street's first gala dinner. But, he says, several dropped out "under pressure."
Ben-Ami says it was "extremely unfortunate that in a campaign of essentially smears and lies, some members of Congress were scared and didn't fully understand who we are," adding that the group is "pro-Israel."
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, also turned down an invitation to speak at the conference. An Israeli official, who asked not to be named, said the Israeli government has "certain reservations" about the policies promoted by J Street. The embassy sent a lower-level diplomat to the conference to listen.
Ben-Ami thinks Israel made a mistake not to engage with a large segment of the American Jewish community.
"This is a group of people that loves Israel, but not unconditionally — and that doesn't mean we shouldn't be welcomed as supporters of Israel," he says. "It is a shame that the government of Israel will only engage with those who see eye to eye and in lock step with it."
The Obama administration, on the other hand, seems to see some value in J Street, sending National Security Adviser James Jones to the conference as a keynote speaker. He won loud applause when he told the audience that the Obama administration will be represented at all future J Street conferences.
Jones did not break any new ground on the issues, saying the U.S. is still trying to create the right atmosphere to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"There's is nothing more important that the United States can do to safeguard Israel's future than to walk the path to peace right beside her in friendship and constant support," he said. He even won applause for talking about the need for Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Ben-Ami says the group's positions are in line with what President Obama says he wants to do to promote Middle East peace.
"One of the critical questions is: Will there be enough political support for him to be able to do what he needs to do to bring the parties together? And the answer to that is a resounding yes," he said.