It was an en­voy-trap set by J Street

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News -

THE QUES­TION of “en­gage­ment vs boy­cott” is as old as all ques­tions re­lated to hu­man re­la­tions. And Is­rael’s Wash­ing­ton am­bas­sador, Michael Oren, has been pon­der­ing it again.

Next week, the “pro-peace, proIs­rael” group J Street will hold its first na­tional con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton. Mr Oren was in­vited to speak, and soon re­alised that, more than an in­vi­ta­tion, this was a trap.

The group is no doubt pro-peace, but its “pro-Is­rael” cre­den­tials are be­ing in­creas­ingly ques­tioned. The em­bassy’s spokesman, ex­press­ing what Mr Oren seems to be­lieve, had said that “while recog­nis­ing the need for a free and open de­bate... it is im­por­tant to stress con­cern over cer­tain [J Street] poli­cies that could im­pair Is­rael’s in­ter­ests”.

J Street, on more than one front, tilts quite rad­i­cally to the left, per­haps even to the left of Mr Obama.

Clearly, it is much to the left of Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment and Is­raeli so­ci­ety. The head of op­po­si­tion, Tzipi Livni, had also de­clined an in­vi­ta­tion to speak to the group. J Street will find sup­port among Is­raelis only at the fringes of Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal field.

Invit­ing Mr Oren, though, was a win-win move. The group had al­ready se­cured some big names — Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Jim Jones, some se­na­tors and con­gress­men sym­pa­thetic to J Street, or ea­ger to please el­e­ments of the Demo­cratic Party. So Mr Oren was bur­dened with a prob­lem­atic de­ci­sion.

Ad­dress­ing the group would give it the “le­git­i­macy” it seeks, a stamp of ap­proval from the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment, or at least pub­lic ac­knowl­edg­ment that it now mer­its at­ten­tion.

A de­ci­sion not to at­tend would give the group what it likes most: an­other op­por­tu­nity to say that it is shunned and that there is a scheme to “si­lence de­bate” on Is­rael in the US. J Street has been march­ing to this tune for 18 months, gain­ing sym­pa­thy mostly from the un­af­fil­i­ated and the un­e­d­u­cated.

And in­deed, when Mr Oren was slow to re­act to the in­vi­ta­tion, J Street took to the air­waves, urg­ing him to at­tend and con­tend­ing that “en­gag­ing this part of the com­mu­nity and find­ing com­mon ground, even as we dif­fer on pol­icy, would be an im­por­tant step for Is­rael in en­sur­ing con­tin­ued, long-term and deep sup­port for Is­rael across the breadth of our com­mu­nity.”

When he later fi­nally an­nounced that he was go­ing to de­cline, and send a lower lever of­fi­cial to “ob­serve” the con­fer­ence, the group said that the in­vi­ta­tion is still “open”. Never drop a winning card.

But Mr Oren, as am­bas­sador, had more to con­sider than the im­por­tant Jewish-pro­gres­sive con­stituency that J Street’s di­rec­tor Jeremy Ben-Ami was talk­ing about. He needed to con­sider the watch­ing con­gress­men, those still un­de­cided about J Street. If Mr Oren had at­tended, they would have been able to at­tend without the fear of be­ing neg­a­tively la­belled by pro-Is­rael ac­tivists.

He needed to con­sider the fact that the strength­en­ing of J Street would weaken the uni­fied voice of the more cen­trist ad­vo­cacy groups. He needed to con­sider the fact that this game, like most Wash­ing­to­nian games, is not just about the “is­sues” — in this case Is­rael and the peace process — but also about power.

Does he want to be the one mak­ing it eas­ier for J Street to gain power? Def­i­nitely not.

Trou­ble is that the dilemma was a tricky one, and Mr Oren can’t be as­sured that ei­ther de­ci­sion would hurt J Street more than it would help him. A trap.

Sh­muel Ros­ner blogs at Ros­ner’s Do­main

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