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With a new president, J Street braces for first conference in political wilderness

Starting this weekend, confab to showcase liberal group’s plans to deal with a new environment in DC; aims to capitalize on widespread US Jewish opposition to Trump

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, speaking at the group’s 2012 conference. (Courtesy J Street)

February 24, 2017

Since President Donald Trump assumed office last month, the liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street has been grappling with a new reality.

No longer does it have a White House that is sympathetic to the goals on which it was founded, that is listening to what it has to say, and that is vocally emphatic about pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Instead, it faces a president who nominated David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel, a man who boasted about removing support for two states from the Republican platform in November and who once referred to the group’s supporters as “worse than kapos” (Jews who aided Nazis in the Holocaust), a president who last week upended decades of American foreign policy by not insisting on the two-state formula as the only way to resolve the conflict. (In a Thursday interview with Reuters, Trump clarified that he likes the two-state solution but is open to “whatever both parties agree with.”)

For the first time since its 2007 founding, J Street is learning what it’s like to be in the political wilderness with no allies in the administration, an unfamiliar landscape that leaves it with challenges for advancing its goals but also opportunities for advancing the organization, according to several prominent Jewish Democratic activists in Washington.

“They no longer have access to the State Department, the White House and most probably not the new US ambassador,” Susan Turnbull, former chair of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, told The Times of Israel. “They are not going to be involved in conversations at that level for the immediate future. It appears that they will not be in a position to influence any administration decisions.”

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

That assessment is not lost on the group, which invited several top members of the Trump administration to address its annual confab, which opens Saturday night, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, all of whom had yet to respond as of this writing.

“We were not taken up on the invitation,” J Street founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami told The Times of Israel. “They are still, at this moment, welcome to decide to send someone to speak.”

Last year, by contrast, the conference hosted vice president Joe Biden and secretary of state John Kerry.

But even without those top-level administration officials — whom it had become accustomed to receiving — J Street is still delivering several high-profile Democrats who all represent part of the fierce opposition to Trump and his policies.

This lineup for this year’s event — which runs February 25-28 at the Washington Convention Center includes Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a collection of individuals who will be addressing what is expected to be the largest crowd for a J Street conference ever.

The confab is expecting more than 3,500 attendees this year, up on last year’s 3,000 — and a long way from the roughly 18,000 who showed up for 2016’s AIPAC Policy Conference.

But still, perhaps the biggest test of the event will be how the organization manages to orchestrate its path forward amidst a political dynamic opposite to the one it became accustomed to under president Barack Obama.

Owning its opposition status

With Trump’s presidency, J Street will be tested on what it means to be a foreign policy lobbying group that’s not in a position to actually influence the real makers of America’s foreign policy, according to several DC insiders.

“I think they will enjoy their time in the opposition, but to what end? How do you define success for a lobby in the wilderness?” a veteran Jewish Democratic strategist told The Times of Israel. “They obviously would have been much more important during a [Hillary] Clinton administration, when we’re talking about shades for support for the two-state solution or shades of interacting with the Jewish community. That was way more important, but instead, they are just an opposition group.”

J Street, however, sees the opportunity that most groups in the opposition have to maximize its fundraising efforts, and, in its case, capitalize on the high level of unfavorable attitudes American Jews have toward Trump.

“It’s a completely different role and we’re feeling a lot of energy about it,” Ben-Ami insisted.

Immediate exit polling after the 2016 election found that roughly 70 percent of American Jews voted for Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, while Trump accrued just 25 percent of the demographic’s support.

“The political balance of power in the American Jewish community definitely rests with those who are more liberal and progressive in their political views,” Ben-Ami said.

That paradigm also presents the possibility of intensifying attitudes of disenchantment toward the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Ben-Ami, who cited statistics that claim a high majority of American Jews support a two-state outcome to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

“If the president and the prime minister of Israel are lined up in a place where they’re not really pushing for two states, and there’s not really a commitment to working toward the end of this conflict, then I think we’re going to be in a place that will provide people with a lot of political cover in the next four years,” he said.

During his meeting with Netanyahu last week, Trump broke with longstanding US policy by not insisting two states was the only acceptable solution to the conflict. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said at a joint press conference with the Israeli premier.

On Thursday, he clarified a preference for two states, but still suggested he was open to other potential outcomes, something those of J Street’s ilk — as well those far more in the center of Israel’s political spectrum — see as suicidal to the Zionist ideal of a Jewish and democratic nation.

Ben-Ami also noted an assessment voiced by others that Netanyahu’s full embrace of Trump — a divisive president who is bitterly opposed by many American Jews — could have long-term consequences in shifting attitudes and perceptions of Israel.

“When seventy-five percent of the American Jewish community is feeling completely disconnected from what Donald Trump and his administration is doing and saying, then to see the prime minister of Israel just give him a hug and a pat on the back and tell him that he’s doing the right thing when it comes to the wall and the next steps, it’s not just young people that are really questioning this,” Ben-Ami said, referring to a tweet Netanyahu sent out approving of Trump’s controversial plan to build a wall on America’s southern border.

“This is a moment when the majority of the American Jewish is not in sync with the leadership of either country,” he added.

A new place in the Jewish organizational landscape?

J Street’s conference comes at a time when US Jewish groups have been particularly galvanized — with a plethora of organizations coming out in opposition to Trump’s Muslim entry ban and recent rescinding of an Obama era executive order that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity and not the gender listed on their birth certificate.

But J Street’s focus for the confab remains almost entirely on Israel’s condition, including its conflict with and treatment of Palestinians, as well as the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, although it will have a breakout session on the uptick anti-Semitic attacks and combatting Islamophobia.

Turnbull noted this agenda could place J Street in a singular place on the new Jewish communal organization landscape. “Other Jewish groups are going to be much more focused on domestic social justice issues,” during the Trump era, she said.

One particular emphasis of the group’s recent lobbying won’t play a central role in the conference, Ben-Ami said: The nomination of David Friedman.

Opposition to his nomination will be “central to our advocacy day,” in which J Street supporters will lobby members of Congress on Tuesday, but not something to which it will devote as much time as other causes. “We probably won’t discuss the nomination so much at the conference, though it is undoubtedly symbolic and will be referenced a lot, but we’re not having breakout sessions about the nomination itself,” he said.

Friedman walked back some of his previous statements — including his “kapos” remark and causing former president Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” — during an intense confirmation hearing last week, when he was heckled repeatedly by both Jewish and Palestinian protesters.

Friedman also referred to the two-state solution, something he recurrently chastised during the campaign, for which he was an Israel policy adviser to Trump, as the “most ideal” way to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question.

“It still remains the best possibility of peace in the region,” Friedman said. “I would be delighted to see peace come to this region where people have suffered on both sides for so long,” he elaborated. “I have expressed my skepticism about the two-state solution solely on the basis of what I have perceived as unwillingness to renounce terror and accept Israel as a Jewish state.”

A vote on his nomination has not yet been scheduled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.