J Street Convenes in Washington, but Can It Take on AIPAC?

The self-declared pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby kicked off its first conference in Washington on Sunday.

The self-declared pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby J Street kicked off its first conference in Washington on Sunday, with several American political bigwigs and a number of leftist Israeli heavyweights. Absent, however, was the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, who hemmed and hawed before finally admitting last week that he would not be going.

J Street, which sees itself as a dovish alternative to the all-powerful AIPAC, appears to have taken the rebuff by Israel in its stride, and has to make do with the presence of U.S. National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who will deliver the keynote speech on Tuesday.

The main dish on the conference menu is how to reach a two-state solution for the eternally warring Israelis and Palestinians, with a side order of Israeli-American ties. The topics up for panel debates are fairly obvious, dominating as they do the global diplomatic agenda: settlement growth, the Mideast peace process and Iran (the lobby opposes a military strike on Iran).

Unlike AIPAC, this conference will not be forgiving of Israel, nor will it offer unmitigated support. Tough questions will be asked and every aspect of Israel's policies and relationship with the U.S. come under scrutiny; even a debate about "what it means to be pro-Israel" was promised.

The lobby seems to be surfing on the turning tide of American and American Jewish policy regarding Israel. Its mission statement is more in line with the Mideast policies of Barack Obama, who won the support of an overwhelming number of American Jewish voters last November.

In his introduction to the conference, J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami writes that the event has special resonance for, among others, "Jewish and other Americans who have found it hard to connect to traditional pro-Israel advocacy."

But solidifying its status as an AIPAC alternative depends on whether American Jews truly are sick of the endless rounds of talking and fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, and the increasingly hard-line stance coming out of Jerusalem.

J Street may have a long way to go until it has the pulling power of AIPAC, whose 2008 conference drew John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Obama (admittedly, that shindig did take place in June - at the height of the presidential campaigns and before Clinton decided to climb down the tree), but it is making many waves in the U.S. and in Israel.

Expect an interesting three days, whether or not the lobby yet has the teeth of its more high-profile rival.