J Street begins conference, lobbying effort this weekend

The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street begins its annual conference and lobbying effort this weekend following criticism by lawmakers and other pro-Israel groups over its support of a proposed UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli housing development on the West Bank.

Under pressure from key members including Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorRepublicans eager to take on Spanberger in Virginia Virginia emerging as ground zero in battle for House majority McAuliffe's loss exposes deepening Democratic rift MORE (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Obama administration ultimately vetoed the resolution on Feb. 18.

No stranger to controversy since its founding in 2008 as a progressive Jewish political alternative to other, more conservative organizations, J Street typically takes heat over its self-definition as pro-Israel. J Street advocates a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

The nonprofit advocacy group holds its second conference in Washington starting Saturday evening and concluding with more than 200 meetings scheduled for attendees to lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. More than 2,000 people are already pre-registered for the event, according to spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum, but last year around one-third of the attendees registered on-site.

“We think it’s the third largest annual gathering of Jewish community [in the U.S.],” Rosenblum said. The other gatherings are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in May and the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in November.

The lineup of speakers at this year’s J Street conference could again court controversy. It includes Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and originally the face of the Cordoba House — since renamed Park51 — which is the Muslim community center planned to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. The location of the center, which includes a mosque, prompted protests by critics who considered it inappropriate to the memory of Sept. 11.

“[Rauf]’s work in New York is a very good example of efforts between the Muslim and Jewish communities to create interfaith cooperation and co-existence work,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, who said he has not heard any renewed controversy over Rauf’s inclusion.

Ambassador Maen Areikat, the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the U.S., will also speak. Six members of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, are included on the speakers list: Daniel Ben-Simon, Yoel Hasson, Shlomo Molla, Amir Peretz, Nachman Shai and Orit Zuaretz. All are members of the Kadima and Labor parties, while the leading party Likud — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party — is not represented. In contrast, Netanyahu spoke at last year’s AIPAC conference in Washington and is scheduled to speak again this year.

The Obama administration is represented by Middle East adviser Ambassador Dennis Ross, who will deliver a keynote address at the event. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at last year’s AIPAC convention.

Suhail Khan, a senior political appointee under President Bush, will also speak. Khan recently became the focal point of a controversy following his attendance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), also in D.C., when conservative leader Frank Gaffney accused Khan of an intention to infiltrate the conservative movement due to alleged ties to the radical Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood. Khan and Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, represent the notable Republicans speaking at the event.

Lawmakers speaking at the event are all Democrats: Reps. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), Betty McCollum (Minn.), David Price (N.C.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Lois Capps (Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (Calif.).

Former J Street ally Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) very publicly split from J Street last month in response to their stance on the UN resolution, saying, “America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain't it."

Ben-Ami called this a “misrepresentation of our position and of this resolution” and defended the resolution for stressing the urgency of achieving a two-state solution.

To that end, J Street’s lobbying agenda this year will push for increased American leadership in promoting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories and also for maintaining U.S. foreign aid to the region. Cutting foreign aid has been a topic under debate in recent budget decisions.

Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy for J Street, does not expect the UN resolution to come up in meetings on Capitol Hill.

“We are making a very explicit call about aid to Israel and aid to the Palestinian Authority,” Susskind said. “Aid to the Palestinians, in fact aid to the rest of the region, is important to Israel as well. Talk to Israeli security officials, they will all tell you how important the U.S. funded and trained Palestinian security forces have been to reducing terrorist attacks in Israel.”

Meetings with specific lawmakers are mainly dictated by the states represented by attendees, according to Susskind. Around 800 people are participating in the lobbying, he said, representing 35 states. The largest numbers of attendees come from New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Maryland and the D.C. area.

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m.