I made my way over to the J Street conference today to see for myself just how "pro-peace, pro-Israel" the organization really is, and there can be no doubt, J Street is pro-peace. But while the leadership of J Street may be pro-Israel, the conference they've organized was at times openly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. I had the chance to speak with the director of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, as well as his director of policy and strategy, Hadar Susskind. On the issues, the best that can be said about these two is that they are squishes -- at all costs they avoid taking a strong position on any major issue other than settlements. Take the issue of Iran sanctions, for example. J Street has been at the center of the anti-sanctions coalition. Ben-Ami coauthored an op-ed on the Huffington Post with Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian-American Council who serves as the Iranian regime's man in Washington, urging against sanctions legislation in Congress. As that position became increasingly untenable for J Street -- support for sanctions on Iran is near universal in the Jewish community and in Congress -- the group has shifted. In the House, sanctions legislation is being shepherded by the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Howard Berman. J Street has tried to square the circle by supporting Berman's mark-up of the legislation while opposing final passage of the legislation. I asked Susskind, "you do not support sanctions but you support Berman?" He answered: "Correct." The Goldstone report has also put J Street in an awkward position. J Street released two statements on Goldstone, neither of which condemned the report. Meanwhile, Ben-Ami told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that J Street is "refusing to embrace the Goldstone report." I asked Susskind, what is J Street's position on Goldstone? "There's a lot of space between condemn and embrace," he said. When I asked Susskind whether J Street would support a resolution condemning Goldstone, and introduced by the same Howard Berman J Street claims to support on sanctions, Susskind punted, saying he'd not read the text of the resolution. It is, however, hard to believe that the policy director for J Street isn't following this kind of hot-button legislation on the Hill. Ben-Ami is a professional Democratic operative who is careful to calibrate his message to his audience. When I asked him at a press conference this morning how J Street could be for a mark-up of sanctions legislation but against passage of that legislation, he explained that J Street is "not for passing sanctions at this moment in a way that would undercut the diplomatic process." He later added that "the possibility of military actions is probably the most counterproductive thing that could happen." So the passage of sanctions legislation and the possibility of military action -- the two sticks the Obama administration might use to further the diplomatic process -- are both off the table for J Street. But accuse J Street of opposing sanctions or the use of force and they'll say you're misrepresenting their position. Another core position for J Street is a refusal to defer to the Israeli government in its positions. In contrast to AIPAC, J Street seeks to persuade the Israeli government if possible but coerce them if necessary in order to achieve a halt to settlements, an end to incursions, a withdrawal from the West Bank, and ultimately a final status agreement. J Street does not say that these issues are up to the Israelis to decide. Yet J Street takes a different view when it comes to engagement with Hamas. During the campaign, Obama sought to mollify critics of his engagement policy by ruling out any engagement with terror organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah. Ben-Ami's group has yet to break with the president on any issue, and he said today that "the United States government should not and does not need to engage with a terrorist organization in official negotiations." But, he said, "should the government of Israel decide that it is in Israel's best interest to negotiate with Hamas, the United States should not stand in the way -- that's up to Israel to decide." This kind of formulation is typical of AIPAC statements but unusual for J Street. It's interesting that the one issue on which J Street would happily defer to Netanyahu, if Netanyahu were so inclined, is engagement with Hamas. On two of the most pressing issues facing Israel and the Jewish community -- Goldstone and Iran sanctions -- J Street is unable or unwilling to articulate a position. J Street seems to be walking on egg shells, acutely aware that some of its positions are well outside the Jewish mainstream and that, given recent controversy, it can no longer afford to be perceived as outside the mainstream. Which explains why Ben-Ami tacked decidedly to the right in that interview with Goldberg -- but that interview caused considerable consternation among the J Street rank and file today (more on that in a post later today). Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism and one of the most prominent doves in the country, blasted J Street earlier this year for "drawing a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel." Yoffie spoke at the J Street conference today and was booed by the audience for criticizing Goldstone. J Street is trying to find the space between its hard left, anti-Zionist base and the larger community of liberal, pro-Israel Jews. It's not clear they'll succeed.
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