J Street Stresses Urgency of Peace in Opening of Annual Conference in Washington

Among the speakers at this year's conference are former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli author Amos Oz and American-Jewish journalist Peter Beinart.

WASHINGTON - The left-leaning pro-Israel lobby organization J Street was schedule to kick off its third annual conference in Washington late last night Israel time, under the banner "Making History." The commitment to making history comes in a year in which the stalemate in the peace process has become an established fact and increasing doubt is being expressed about a two-state solution. Nonetheless J Street, which is seen as a renegade organization by some in the Jewish community, is convening in Washington for four days of speeches and workshops followed by the usual lobbying visits by delegates to members of Congress. Their message on Capitol Hill will include the urgency of peace.

Among the speakers at this year's conference are former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli author Amos Oz and American-Jewish journalist Peter Beinart. The latter has attracted a lot of controversy in recent weeks in the Jewish community over his new book, "The Crisis of Zionism," and a column in The New York Times calling for a boycott of West Bank settlements.

J Street - March 2012

When U.S. President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 expectations ran high that he would be receptive to J Street and similar organizations like it. Obama was seen as a liberal who, although he visited the rocket-battered Israeli town of Sderot, also acknowledged the plight of the Palestinians.

Four years later, in another election year, it is clear that the veteran pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the default choice for every U.S. administration, Democratic and Republican alike. This year's AIPAC conference attracted about 13,000 people. Obama came to speak to them personally, right after Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The J Street conference, by contrast, is expected to attract about 2,500 people. The Obama administration is scheduled to be represented by Antony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

Blinken is well-regarded for his analyses and has his share of friends in Washington, but his scheduled appearance at the J Street convention was not necessarily viewed as enhancing its standing. After some critical press on the subject, the White House decided to also dispatch Valerie Jarett, who has strong ties with the American Jewish community and is a senior presidential adviser.

The official Israeli presence at the J Street conference is more prominent this year than usual. At the group's first policy conference the Israeli government made do with an observer from the embassy in Washington, who did not speak at the event. Last year the embassy stayed away altogether after the organization called on the U.S. administration not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. This year the embassy will be represented by its second-ranking diplomat, Baruch Bina, who will actually address the group. Bina has ambassadorial ranking and was until recently in charge of relations with the United States in the Foreign Ministry.

Peres will address the group in a recorded video message.

J Street staffers have expressed some disappointment that Jerusalem did not send a higher-ranking official. Founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, called it part of the problem his organization was created to address. Spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum said J Street's supporters are eager to strengthen ties with Israeli representatives in the United States.