Ever since its founding a mere five years ago, America’s main progressive Israel advocacy group, J Street, has aimed to join the big time.
With Vice President Joe Biden giving the keynote address at this year’s annual convention in Washington DC, the organisation may just have made it.
Although Mr Biden’s speech on Monday was undramatic — he drew on his Irish ancestry to discuss the realities of reconciliation and cited the need for diplomatic resolutions in the Middle East to promote political stability — his presence was loudly appreciated by the 3,000 delegates. They had had to wait for the delayed official, but they forgave him readily. “Blame the president,” he said, to laughs.
Over the course of the conference, J Streeters also heard from an impressive line-up of speakers that included Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (who is also Israel’s chief negotiator in the current peace talks), Israeli opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich and President Barack Obama’s special peace talks envoy, Martin Indyk.
The star-studded roster was a far cry from April 2008, when Jeremy Ben-Ami and a small group of funders and advisers first set up an organisation to provide a “pro-Israel voice for peace” as an apparent rival to the formidable American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).
With the strong backing of Israeli governments, especially that of Prime Minsister Benjamin Netanyahu, Aipac has been fearsomely effective at lobbying both major US political parties, but J Street has taken a slightly different tack. It has looked to the largely liberal American Jewish population for its mandate, advocating for the two-state solution that is the stated aim of both the Israeli and American governments.
Although the group’s “pro-Israel” bona fides has been questioned by the American right and its activities snubbed by various members of Mr Netanyahu’s government, J Street has shored up its support.
Another sign of J Street’s new-found status as a major-league player in the Israel-US political game was the fact that the conference attracted MKs of many parties and a senior member of Mr Obama’s administration, despite having declined to support his push to take military action against Syria a month ago.
While Mr Obama has spoken at Aipac conferences, only lower-level White House officials, such as Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, have previously been despatched to their J Street equivalents.
Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg speculated that Mr Biden’s attendance was related to the return to the political fray of Louis Susman, back in the US after his stint as ambassador to Britain. Since his return, Mr Susman has renewed his funding of the Democratic Party and joined the board of J Street. Mr Biden, planning a possible presidential campaign in 2016, needs financial support and may look to Mr Susman, an expert fundraiser with whom he spent Thanksgiving last year, for backing.
Commentators have noted that the title of the conference — “Our Time to Lead” — is as much a statement of J Street’s hopes for itself as it is a call for the US to keep pushing the peace process. A prerequisite of both of those aims are well-connected people who can first bring about influence and, through that, peace.