The rhetorical question posed in the Book of Amos “would the two go together unless they have agreed” was answered in Washington on Monday night when former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared as the keynote speaker at the gala dinner of the leftist Jewish lobby J Street. Olmert and J Street, after all, have at least two important common denominators: both strongly support a two-state solution and both desperately seek public legitimacy.
Olmert received standing ovations and warm rounds of applause from an appreciative audience gathered in the capital’s Convention Center, as if he was simply the tireless prince of peace and not the disgraced prime minister who faces myriad suspicions, charges and indictments on corruption that actually forced him out of office. That inconvenient milestone was conveniently expunged from the glowing bio read out by J Street founder and funder Davidi Gilo, who introduced Olmert to the kind of admiring crowd that Olmert frequently encounters abroad but can no longer hope to attract on his own home turf.
J Street, for its part, scored a double whammy in its relentless drive for mainstream acceptance by hosting not only a former Israeli prime minister but a senior official from the Israeli Embassy as well. Deputy Ambassador Barukh Binah was greeted with enthusiasm when he began his speech and with marked relief when it was over, with stony silence in between accompanying his rather harsh criticisms of some of J Street’s own attitudes and practices on Iran, on settlements and on exerting its influence.
In many ways, in fact, the rounds of applause and the moments of silence at the gala dinner were as clear an indication as can be that J Street is the “Bizarro World” of AIPAC, or vice versa, if you prefer. Just like in the opposite Superman world invented by DC Comics, statements such as Olmert’s “Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran” which would have had the crowd on their feet at AIPAC were met with cool reserve at J Street, while his proclamation that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas genuinely wants peace brought the audience to their feet. If someone spoke so glowingly of Abbas at AIPAC, you could probably hear a pin drop in the room in response.
Likewise, when Olmert spoke of the deep Jewish connection to Jerusalem, a staple crowd pleaser at AIPAC, the J Street audience yawned, but when he referred to the inevitability of the capital’s division, his listeners howled with approval. Realizing where the crowd’s sentiments lay, Olmert had to beg his audience not to applaud when he recounted his painful agreement during his talks with Abbas to relinquish Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount.
In fact, in its desperation to be considered AIPAC’s equal opposite, J Street may have laid a not-so-subtle trap for itself. By holding its annual convention less than a month after AIPAC’s and at exactly the same place, J Street only accentuated the fact that it drew 2,500 participants compared to AIPAC’s 13,000, that its roster of attending American representatives and senators wasn’t even in the same universe as AIPAC’s star-studded roll call and that instead of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, J Street had to make do with Olmert and two Obama Administration officials, the White House’s Valerie Jarret, who barely bothered to disguise the fact that she was openly campaigning for the president and Antony Blinken, the Vice President’s national security adviser who went to great lengths to avoid even a hint of a noteworthy headline.
The current spin of Israeli officials and AIPAC activists is that J Street has turned out to be a paper tiger that is no threat to anyone, and there is no denying the fact that faced with the fury of many in the Jewish community, the Administration has preferred to close ranks with its ideological critics on the right and to leave its supporters at J Street dangling in the wind. At the same time, however, there is also no denying that J Street’s conferences get bigger from year to year, its profile and presence in the national media are firmly established and if one can judge by just one solitary gala dinner, it also enjoys a strong espirit de corps and the refreshing enthusiasm of its many young supporters.
The jury is still out, it seems, on the question of whether it is J Street that succumbed to external pressures and started to toe the party line or rather the stalwart opposition of the Jewish establishment that is crumbling in the face of J Street’s momentum. Despite Binah’s call for J Street to stop “pressuring” the Israeli government, his very presence at the gala dinner signifies the increasing acceptance of the credo of J Street and its supporters that Diaspora Jews can legitimately criticize the government of Israel while continuing to claim their rightful place in the proverbial community tent.
Of course, all of this comes against the backdrop of a complete absence of any realistic hope of meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, which J Street was formed to promote, and the incessant drums of an approaching confrontation with Iran, with which J Street, frankly, is ill prepared to contend. It is a distressing sign of the times, isn’t it, when the two elements of J Street’s “pro-peace, pro-Israel” logo can easily be viewed as a contradiction in terms.
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