Sunday, October 11, 2009

'J Street could hurt Israel's interests'

Oct. 11, 2009

WASHINGTON - The Israeli Embassy informed J Street of its concern that the new lobbying group advocates policies that could "impair Israel's interests," an embassy spokesman has told The Jerusalem Post. The 18-month-old self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization has been reaching out to the embassy and invited Ambassador Michael Oren to speak at its first annual conference in late October. Despite early indications the embassy was looking to engage the group, Oren has yet to meet with executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami or agree to participate in the conference.

Instead, the embassy has "communicated to J Street its views on the peace process and on the best way to ensure Israel's security," according to embassy spokesman Yoni Peled.

The message, Peled said, is that "while recognizing the need for a free and open debate on these issues, it is important to stress concern over certain policies that could impair Israel's interests."

J Street has taken several positions at odds with the Israeli government in recent months, including arguing against the immediate imposition of additional sanctions on Iran even as Israel pushes for greater action, and backing US President Barack Obama's call for a complete settlement freeze in the face of Israeli opposition.

The organization has also been criticized in certain Israeli and American Jewish circles for attacking other Jewish groups in ways that some feel breed division.

At the same time, J Street has stressed that it is supportive of Israel and believes its positions will best help ensure the Jewish state's survival.

"It's not a surprise that we disagree with certain Israeli government policies," J Street spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said. "Our bottom line is that we always support the State of Israel and its future as a democracy."

"That's why J Street exists - to have this open debate" on differing points of view, she explained, adding that the organization still hopes Oren will attend the conference to further that discussion.

According to Spitalnick, some 1,000 Israel activists will attend the multi-day event. In addition, 160 members of Congress have signed onto the host committee for the conference gala.

With its annual conference, political action committee endorsing Congressional candidates, new campus presence and opening of field offices, J Street is looking to become a force to be reckoned with on the American Jewish scene.

While some have welcomed its creation, the group has also received pushback from quarters of the American Jewish community that charge its positions call into question the group's pro-Israel credentials and lend credence to Israel's detractors.

One such critic, former Commentary magazine editor Gabriel Schoenfeld, lambasted J Street on Thursday for not repudiating the backing of Stephen Walt, whose book The Israel Lobby and Foreign Policy Schoenfeld described as using anti-Semitic tropes.

"For a Jewish organization to make common cause with anti-Semitic voices in order to tear down others to establish its place at the table is nothing less than shameful," Schoenfeld said, pointing to a link on the J Street Web site to one of Walt's articles mentioning J Street, on the group's news citations page. He also referred to Walt's recent praise for J Street in a Washington Post story.

Schoenfeld was speaking on a panel on divisions within American Jewry organized by the Hudson Institute. Ben-Ami had been schedule to appear with him but canceled due to illness.

In response, Spitalnick said, "The only thing shameful here is an offensive and scurrilous attempt to turn blatant lies into stated facts. It is only through conversations rooted in actual fact and integrity - rather than lies and smears - that we'll move forward in our goal of securing Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic homeland."

She said Ben-Ami has frequently spoken about his disagreements with Walt's analysis in his book, which he co-wrote with John Mearsheimer.

"There are plenty of people who talk about J Street that we don't agree with. Just because they mention us in an article doesn't mean that we therefore endorse their analysis," Spitalnick said. "We don't come out with a statement on every person who's spoken about us."•

No comments: