Despite a number of setbacks in the past year, J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that advocates for a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, expects record attendance at its fifth national conference scheduled for March 21-24.
The conference will benefit from the excitement resulting from Israel’s election, with attention
focused on political developments in Israel and the United States that may impact the future of a peace process. According to Sarah Beller, J Street’s director of programming and education, the conference will host more than 3,000 attendees to hear more than 100 speakers in more than 30 sessions.
The theme for this year’s conference, is “A Clear Choice for a Brighter Future,” and will continue the organization’s focus on the two-state solution.
“We’re going to be talking about the crucial choices that are facing Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders at this juncture in the road,” said Beller, who leads a team of 20-somethings in putting together the conference. “Post-election, post- [Secretary of State John] Kerry initiative; looking ahead to what the future will look like and the need to take responsibility for what that future would look like.”
Far less attention will be focused on American politics, although Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) will deliver a keynote address during one of the sessions and there will be one breakout panel on the 2016 congressional races.
In addition to the focus on the decisions that need to be made for the future negotiations for a two-state solution, another track that many of the conference’s breakout sessions will cover is called “Beyond the Green Line.”
“That’s going to look at settlements and occupation,” said Beller. “Understanding what is actually the cost of what’s going on in the West Bank to Israeli society – economically, culturally, socially – and if, how, and to what extent they are an obstacle to peace.”
Besides Schakowsky, there will be six Knesset members from four political parties, although this number could change depending on the results of the election.
Some of the other prominent speakers will include Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers; and former George H.W. Bush administration Secretary of State James Baker.
The Obama administration is on course to send a speaker, but as with the late notification that National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s attendance at AIPAC was announced two days before the conference began, J Street organizers did not know who the administration speaker would be.
The 7-year-old political organization whose goal is to “redefine what it means to be pro-Israel in America” believes it has made progress in harnessing the support of moderate pro-Israel voices among American Jews.
The issue of Iran and the U.S.-led P5+1 negotiations against the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear ambitions was the main focus at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee at its recent policy conference and that of most pro-Israel organizations. However, for J Street, Iran is a side issue and will not be prominently featured, said Alan Elsner, the organization’s vice president for communications.
In recent years, J Street has been highly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. It publicly responded to Netanyahu’s demands that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accept Israel as a “Jewish State;” called for an end to Operation Protective Edge and Israeli settlement expansion; and more recently opposed what Elsner considers Netanyahu’s ill-timed address to Congress.
Out of the 58 members of Congress who skipped the prime minister’s speech inside the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, 27 had received campaign donations from J Street PAC – the affiliated political action committee able to disburse campaign contributions to political candidates – or listed on the organization’s website.
J Street PAC, the largest Israel issues political action committee in the United States (AIPAC is a lobbying organization and does not directly give money to candidates), disbursed more than $2.5 million to candidates in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“I think that by agreeing to accept this invitation in the way that it was issued and at the time it was issued, Netanyahu was the one who created the firestorm around the speech and has done tremendous damage to the traditional bipartisan foundation of support for Israel in this country,” said Elsner. “I don’t put all the blame on him. Obviously there are Republicans like [Speaker of the House John] Boehner and others, people like [casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon] Adelson, who have an interest in trying to make it a partisan issue, but we would expect the prime minister of Israel to understand the importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.”
Elsner said that there is movement toward the views of his organization, among the public and Congress, and the speech boycott demonstrated this.
“Curiously enough… [there were] Democrats whose support for Israel should not be questioned, who basically said, ‘yes, we support Israel and we love Israel but we do not endorse this speech and the circumstances under which this speech took place.
“And the fact that they had the courage and felt that they had the political room to do that, does indicate that there has been a small but subtle change on Capitol Hill.”
The conference will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington.