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J Street, Oren mending fences — but wariness lingers

WASHINGTON – After months of high-profile feuding, the breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to Washington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking — through the media and directly in private — with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in the rapprochement, much needs to be bridged — underscored by a persistent Israeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in which he said that the organization had moved “much more into the mainstream.” It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.

“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Cong. [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”

Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue their efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street, that they see as being hostile to Israel.

The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored in some recent statements to cast the embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate. At a time when some voices on the left were criticizing Israel’s rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year’s Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

“Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish people,” J Street said. “It did, in this instance, serve as a real model for the international community. We urge those who might otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of urgent international need.”

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — J Street was calling for civility. (See pages 15, 17, and 20.)

“We believe that universities should be a place for an honest discussion about tough issues,” the group said. “While appropriate and respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive, and inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable.”

Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear our different positions,” Susskind said. “We’ve said all along we would welcome a good productive relationship with them.”

Officials close to the Israeli Embassy confirmed the conversations.

J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas equally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures. Israel considers containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions its signature issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum — and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group of Conservative rabbis that J Street’s views are dangerous for Israel.

Neither side needed the tension. Oren’s description of the group as “dangerous” earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy — an official with whom he would in theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not unhappy with Rosenthal’s remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40 to 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations. Congressional insiders say J Street’s green light in December for Iran sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns out to officially “overwhelming”: 412-12. That sent the Obama administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders — but in Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers.

There’s a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on the “must call” list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a meeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset by “punching up” — issuing blistering attacks on groups that were larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, and The Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street’s recent efforts to pull back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian group hoped to “precipitate” an Armageddon through support for right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel — and in any case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world. (See page 15.)

“J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.

JTA

 
 

The Israel Project pitches peace as well as Israel

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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and The Israel Project president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi are pictured at a Sept. 21 dinner in New York hosted by Mizrahi’s group. David Neff

WASHINGTON – Two months ago the Israel Project was wondering, in a Capitol Hill briefing, “Is the Palestinian Authority preparing its people for peace?”

The answer was a pretty unequivocal “no.”

Delivering the briefing was Itamar Marcus, a founder of Palestinian Media Watch who has posited that anti-Semitism is not just endemic to Palestinian nationalism but central to it.

Last month, the same Israel Project said it was “honored” to host a dinner for Jewish groups in New York with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — and was even more willing to be charmed by him.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project. “We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas — especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”

Contradiction?

Not at all, Mizrahi told JTA in an interview: Both events stem from The Israel Project’s mandate to accurately represent Israel’s policies. In this case, Mizrahi said, she got her hechsher for Fayyad from Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The prime minister of Israel said that this is his partner for peace,” Mizrahi said. “If the supposedly right-wing prime minister of Israel says this is partner for peace, it is.”

Insiders say that The Israel Project’s recent aggressive outreach — to Palestinians in particular and Arabs and Muslims generally — is a signal of Netanyahu’s seriousness in his direct talks with Palestinian leaders, which were renewed recently at the behest of the Obama administration. Netanyahu is giving a green light to American pro-Israel groups to take the talks seriously.

“You’ve got to welcome anyone who reaches out,” said Hadar Susskind, director of policy for J Street, the self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel organization, which was not present at the meeting. “It can only help for people to understand each other and for all parties to end the conflict.”

Past peace negotiations have been hindered to a degree by vigorous opposition by some American Jewish groups. In 1995, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee played a critical role in getting a U.S. law passed that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital over the private objections of then-President Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who did not want the issue hampering negotiations.

Mizrahi, 46, was an heir to a cosmetics dynasty who entered the political sphere through Democratic politics — she had an unsuccessful run for Congress in her home state of North Carolina. She cuts a figure that is at once imposing and disarming: Mizrahi is tall, always impeccably and brightly dressed, and exudes deference and charm as soon as she enters a room, remembering every face and details about her interlocutors.

She was among three women who co-founded the Israel Project in 2002, appalled by the image-battering Israel was taking during the second intifada. Their strategy was to help make Israel’s case through friendly outreach and assistance to the media.

The Israel Project has expanded to a team of 44 and two offices in Washington and Jerusalem. Its annual budget has surpassed $7 million.

Mizrahi, as president, occasionally has been caught in the trap of not testing ideas that may seem normative in Israel but sound a jarring note in the wider world. For instance last year, an internal document suggested referring to the removal of settlements as “ethnic cleansing.” She had the reference removed.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which helped arrange the recent evening with Fayyad, said his organization sees engaging with the mainstream of the American Jewish community as critical to making negotiations work.

“We have to have the best possible relations with the widest swath of Jewish American groups,” Ibish said. “We want to talk with any organization that is interested in a two-state solution.”

The American Task Force on Palestine also has ties with AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, he said.

Ibish, however, questioned The Israel Project’s ties with Marcus and other figures who over the years have depicted the whole of Islam as implacably radical.

Mizrahi said her relationship with Marcus and Palestinian Media Watch, which tracks Palestinian incitement and has been criticized by left-wing groups for ignoring a diminution of that incitement in recent years, was tactical and not ideological. Exposing and tamping down incitement create the conditions for peace, she said.

“When you end the incitement, you can create space for Palestinian leaders to say ‘yes,’ “ said Mizrahi, recalling talking to a U.S. negotiator during the 1990s who said that Yasser Arafat never fully embraced peacemaking because he feared for his life.

“I believe that work is incredibly good for both sides, whatever its motivation,” Mizrahi said of Palestinian Media Watch.

That thinking also was behind a new initiative to replicate The Israel Project’s success with U.S. and European media by providing information for the Arab and Muslim media. A staff of four has cultivated relations with 2,000 Arab reporters in the region, Mizrahi said.

U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a board member of Mizrahi’s organization, said it was a natural next step.

“If you had to pick an area where we had to get the pro-peace-with-Israel message out, it’s in the Arabic language,” he told JTA.

After polling by The Israel Project showed increased support for a two-state solution in the Palestinian areas but steadfast opposition in Arab countries, Mizrahi said she saw an opening for outreach to Arab media.

The Israel Project emphasizes positive outreach and offers of assistance to media rather than the blandishments and chastisements that characterize many pro-Israel groups.

“We’re booking and doing interviews on Al Jazeera,” Mizrahi said, sounding slightly amazed at it herself.

JTA

 
 
 
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