ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
There is a passionate conversation going on right now about relations with Israel. The Obama administration's national security adviser spoke today at the conference of a pro-Israel lobby. It was not the powerful group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, rather, it was a much newer group called J Street. The group says it represents not only a street that is missing on the map of Washington, but also a missing voice in the foreign policy establishment, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: A hotel ballroom has been turned into a serious debating ground where Jewish activists young and old are talking about how best to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says he came here to speak because there's value in debating the issues. But he also says J Street shouldn't even try to counter the more well-established pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
Mr. ERIC YOFFIE (President, Union for Reform Judaism): AIPAC does essential work. It has a huge organization. It maintains military support for Israel from the United States government. And, look, I don't agree with AIPAC on everything, but AIPAC is a very valuable and important organization. If this becomes an anti-AIPAC effort, then the American Jewish community will turn against it.
KELEMEN: One J Street supporter who overheard those remarks said 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. Laurie Osher came down from Maine to make that case. She's with the group called the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.
Ms. LAURIE OSHER (Supporter, Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace): This organization started because the loudest voice in D.C. talking to our elected officials was AIPAC, and we felt like they weren't talking enough about peace in the way we think of peace, which is not so focused on the armaments, but focused on the arguments.
KELEMEN: Fifteen hundred people are attending the conference, according to J Street's executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. And though the group is just 18 months old, he says more than 150 members of Congress signed up for the host committee of tonight's gala dinner.
Mr. JEREMY BEN-AMI (Executive Director, J Street): A handful did drop off under pressure, and I think that's extremely unfortunate that in a campaign of, you know, essentially smears and lies, some members of Congress were scared.
KELEMEN: Israel's ambassador also turned down an invitation to speak at the conference. An Israeli official who asked not to be named said that the government has certain reservations about the policies promoted by J Street. Jeremy Ben-Ami thinks Israel made a mistake not to engage with, as he put it, a large segment of the Jewish-American community.
Mr. BEN-AMI: This is a group of people that loves Israel, but not unconditionally - and that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be welcomed as supporters of Israel. And we can argue and we can disagree, but it is a shame that the government of Israel will only engage with those who see eye to eye and in lockstep with it. It may be one of the problems with the foreign policy of the country generally.
KELEMEN: The Obama administration, on the other hand, seems to see some value in J Street, sending National Security Adviser James Jones to the conference today.
Mr. JAMES JONES (U.S. National Security Adviser): I'm honored to represent President Obama at the first national J Street conference, and you can be assured that this administration will be represented at all other future J Street conferences.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
KELEMEN: Jones didn't 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. In this crowd, he won applause for talking about the need for Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. J Street's director, Ben-Ami, says the group's positions are in line with what President Obama says he wants to do to promote Middle East peace.
Mr. BEN-AMI: 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.
KELEMEN: Convincing members of Congress and the White House of that, he says, is J Street's mission.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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