WASHINGTON - J Street, the Washington-based "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" advocacy group, drew a large crowd to its annual conference this year despite criticism over its controversial calls for the Barack Obama administration not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
In the end, the administration vetoed the resolution, but the controversy appeared to have had no negative effect on the organisation's turnout for the just-ended conference, which had 2,400 participants - 900 more than last year - and over 500 students participating.
Over 50 members of Congress were in attendance and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a surprise appearance to honour Kathleen Peratis, vice chair of the J Street Education Fund and the recipient of the group's Tzedek V'Shalom award.
With pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya dominating the headlines over the past week, uncertainty about the shifting geopolitics in the region was a recurring theme in the remarks delivered by J Street leadership, panelists and an Obama administration senior Middle East adviser.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's president, told attendees, "We know in our hearts that it's not just the status quo in the Arab world that is bound to change, it is the status quo between Israel and the Palestinian people that has to change as well," at the conference's kickoff on Saturday night.
"And the events of recent weeks only convince us more deeply that the time is now for a serious and sustained effort to secure an agreement that provides for a democratic homeland for the Jewish people living side by side in peace and security with a democratic homeland for the Palestinian people," he continued.
Indeed the emphasis on taking immediate steps, with the leadership of the United States, to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian is central to J Street's mission as Washington's "political home for pro-Israel, pro- peace Americans".
J Street has gained attention for its willingness to press harder than other pro-Israel organisations in Washington - particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - to pressure Israel to halt settlement construction and for its efforts to create a political space for American Jews who are increasingly critical of the Israeli government's occupation of the West Bank and its siege on Gaza.
The organisation's founding and the appearance, for the second year in a row, of a senior Obama administration official at the conference has found a mixed reception from other "pro-Israel" groups in Washington.
This year, senior White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross was dispatched to address the conference, leading the right-wing Emergency Committee for Israel to call on Ross to take a critical tone in his remarks to the J Street audience.
"There are few moments when someone with your experience and credibility is invited into the anti-Israel echo chamber and provided an opportunity to dispel myths, combat falsehoods, deliver much-needed moral clarity – and state clearly that the United States stands with Israel," said a Feb. 24 letter from the ECI's Executive Director Noah Pollak.
"I trust that you will seize this moment to explain why the Jewish State is not just one of our closest allies, but a country that fully deserves the admiration and moral support of all Americans," Pollak wrote.
Ross spoke on Sunday and delivered remarks which, while avoiding the harsh criticisms which Pollak called on him to make, fell short of the recurring call from J Street panelists for the Obama administration to take a more aggressive approach to bridging issues on which both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government have been unable to find common ground.
"We will continue to press both sides to engage seriously in negotiations – the only forum and the only mechanism that can resolve this historic conflict," said Ross.
Ross deflected a question about the possibility for a new U.S. initiative to kickstart the peace process and repeated the administration's position on Iran, stating, "While the door will always remain open for diplomacy, we remain determined to prevent Iran from acquiring the nuclear weapons and we won't be deflected from this goal."
The panel following Ross's address was critical of the White House official's position, leading New York Times columnist Roger Cohen to quip after Ross had left the room, "[Ross] sat in five administrations but couldn't sit after the speech for the debate," and, "When I hear the word process, I am dying inside, there is no process and there is no peace."
The conference concluded with a keynote address from Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, who told the audience, "The democratic wave spreading through the Middle East includes a free Palestine as an integral part of what is going on. And therefore, Israel as an occupying state cannot remain democratic while it rules over another people. It is antithetical to the winds of the time."
Her speech repeated the calls heard throughout the three days of panels and discussions for the Obama administration to urgently assume greater leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Neither Israel nor Palestine can [make peace] alone. Therefore, action requires that the U.S. and Europe and the international community take steps as well. The present administration in Washington must step forward now," said Chazan.