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Upstart Israel lobby draws controversy

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An upstart group trying to displace the powerful American Israel lobby has attracted President Obama's national security adviser to its first big meeting next week, but the event is also being shunned by Israel's U.S. ambassador and several members of Congress because of its views and ties to controversial figures.

J Street was formed a year and half ago as a more liberal alternative to the nation's main pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. J Street's executive director has said that he wants his group to be the "blocking back" for Mr. Obama's efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

But by taking on the long-established AIPAC and the hawkish Israeli government, and by embracing individuals who have expressed hostility to Israel, J Street also has alienated some veteran Israel supporters in Washington. For example, one of next week's speakers is a Muslim activist who has said that Israel should be considered a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Twelve members of Congress who were initially listed on the conference's host committee of more than 160, including both senators from New York, have withdrawn their names.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday that he would not be able to make a scheduled Tuesday speaking slot because of a conflict, though his staff and J Street say they are hoping to reschedule his appearance at some other time during next week's three-day conference.

Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican who removed his name from the host committee, said he was confused about the group's positions, although he elaborated that he did not feel misled.

"I have a consistently favorable pro-Israel voting record and if someone touts themselves as pro-Israel, I am very likely to join forces with them and that was my thinking with this group," he said. "Then I hear from my rabbi back home and others, and they assure me that this group is by no means on the same page with the mainstream Jewish community back in my district. And I didn't feel comfortable lending my name to that outfit."

But Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, said that J Street is a bona fide pro-Israel organization.

"I am pro-Israel and I was invited to participate there and I feel I share the goals of this organization, which is a safe and secure Israel in peace with Palestinian neighbors in a two-state solution," she said, before saying supporters of the Jewish state should welcome pro-Israel groups of all kinds.

"I feel like this has been posed as either or by some, you are with AIPAC or J-Street. I work closely with both organizations and all pro-Israel organizations," she said.

Hadar Susskind, J Street director of policy and strategy, downplayed the changes in the host committee and said conference schedules frequently get altered.

"As happens in putting together events like this, the list of hosts changed constantly over several months. Names were added and deleted, and decisions on participation changed regularly," he said. "We made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the list, apologize for any mistakes and will certainly adjust the list in the days ahead to reflect both those who wish to add their name and those who wish to remove it."

One key difference between J Street and AIPAC is that the latter calibrates its public positions to reflect the current government in Israel, but J Street is liberal-leaning and has been critical of the center-right governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli Embassy said in a statement Tuesday about Ambassador Michael Oren's invitation to address J Street's meeting next week that it would send an observer and "will follow [J Street's] proceedings with interest."

"In response to the question about J Street's invitation to participate in its conference, the Embassy of Israel has been privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organization that may impair the interests of Israel," the embassy said.

Those concerns range from J Street's position that the U.S. should not impose new sanctions on Iran to the group's tepid criticism of a U.N. report that concluded that Israel deliberately targeted civilians in the Gaza war.

Despite others' distancing themselves from J Street, the White House will be sending retired Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, to address the J Street conference.

"The White House always welcomes the opportunity to discuss the president's views and engage in a dialogue with interested parties," White House spokesman Thomas Vietor said.

Another senior White House official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation that Mr. Jones' decision to speak to J Street was part of a broad outreach effort to U.S. Arab and Jewish groups.

On Monday, Mr. Jones spoke to AIPAC's board of directors and last week he addressed the American Task Force on Palestine. Mr. Jones will also speak to the Arab American Institute's conference later this month.

J Street's critics say the group tolerates those who would make Israel a pariah.

Earlier this year, it supported a Washington Jewish theater company's decision to show Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children," a play that depicts in its final scene a monologue of a parent explaining that Jews must rationalize the killings of Palestinian children in Gaza.

On Monday, J Street's organizers canceled a panel at the conference after some bloggers posted a video on the Internet of one of its poets, Josh Healey, reciting a poem in which Jews were compared to Nazis writing "numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza."

One speaker still on the list is Salam al-Marayati, founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Among other things, Mr. al-Marayati said during a radio interview on Sept. 11, 2001, after the terrorists had struck U.S. soil, that Israel should be considered a suspect.

"If we're going to look at suspects, we should look to the groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents, and I think we should put the state of Israel on the suspect list," he said. He has since said he regretted that statement.

• Eli Lake contributed to this report.