J Street and Israel are still arguing — but on somewhat friendlier terms

The first Israeli government official to ever appear before J Street received a rousing, whistling, foot-stomping reception.

And that was it, as far as the welcome went.

The speech delivered March 26 at J Street’s annual conference by Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at the Washington embassy, was a compendium of the Israeli government’s differences with the liberal pro-Israel group — and, accordingly, it was not interrupted once by cheers or cries of agreement, and Binah left the stage to the lightest of applause.

Yet what was noteworthy was that he turned up at all — something made evident later in the evening when Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, told the gathering that Binah’s appearance was “historic,” even if it was mostly about disagreement.

“The fact that the government decided to send him is the most important thing,” Olmert said, triggering another round of cheers, applause and table thumping from among the some 2,500 conference attendees at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here.

Binah’s very presence was emblematic of how J Street seems to have gravitated toward deeper identification with the country whose interests it has claimed to defend since its 2008 inception — as well as toward the mainstream pro-Israel community in the United States.

Israeli officials monitoring the event said they were surprised by a tone that they considered more pro-Israel than they had expected.

They contrasted this year’s J Street conference with last year’s, when the group opened its conference by honoring Peter Beinart, the journalist who had made waves with an essay warning Israel that it was losing American youth; Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza doctor who remained committed to peace in the wake of the 2009 deaths of three of his daughters from Israeli fire during Operation Cast Lead; and Sara Benninga, a founder of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, which protests Israeli policies in eastern Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods and condemns “ethnic privilege” in Israel.

This year, all three opening speakers were Israelis who are participants in the mainstream of the country’s political debate: Amos Oz, the novelist and peace activist; Stav Shaffir, a founder of the social justice protest movement launched last summer in Israel; and Michael Bitton, the mayor of Yerucham, a development town. Sessions included officials of The Israel Project, an Israel advocacy group that consults with the Israeli government — and one that J Street had once attacked as being unrepresentative of American Jews.

In all, it was a striking shift for a group that at its conference last year featured a panel discussion on the boycott Israel movement, which J Street opposes. The panel included a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace, which describes itself as a part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

It was the decision by Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, to pronouncedly distance himself from Beinart’s latest initiative — a call to boycott products made in West Bank settlements — that was the deciding factor in sending Binah, Israeli officials told JTA. The embassy’s announcement that Binah would attend came a day after Ben-Ami told Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg that Beinart’s initiative would not be productive.

“I don’t think that it makes any sense to put negative pressure on people whose behavior you hope to change,” Ben-Ami told The Atlantic. “I think that the way that Israelis will feel comfortable making the compromises and the sacrifices — and Israel as a whole, not just the settlers — is when they really feel that not only American Jews but the United States is going to be there for them.”

The point of sending Binah to the J Street conference was to establish a relationship with a group that the Israeli government has come around to perceive as significant, said a senior Israeli official.

“A critical conversation is better than no conversation because apathy is our enemy,” the official said. “They understand it’s a process — next time they may get the ambassador.”

Binah suggested that J Street did not appreciate its potential to harm Israel in the organization’s capacity as a lobbying group.

Ben-Ami pushed back in his response, which immediately followed Binah’s speech.

J Street, Ben-Ami said to loud applause, was founded by those who “wanted a voice grounded in commitment and love for Israel but grounded in the Jewish values in which we were raised, grounded in the democratic values in which Israel was founded.”

In an interview with JTA, Ben-Ami said that J Street’s emphasis was always on Israel’s well-being.

Critics have attacked J Street over the participation in its previous conferences of speakers and attendees who are to its left and more hostile to Israel. Asked about the criticism, Ben-Ami attempted to balance his organization’s support for a big tent and open dialogue with clear definitions of its stances.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to use ‘apartheid’” in discussing Israel, he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to use those words, and people who do don’t speak for J Street. I don’t want to hear the phrase ‘one-state solution,’ but does that mean there aren’t people here who do? No.”

J Street’s positioning has disappointed and angered some to its left. In particular, the organization has been criticized over its speaking invitation to Olmert, who is under indictment in Israel on corruption charges.

While Olmert in his address highlighted his efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, many on the left have criticized his role in ordering Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli human rights monitoring group B’Tselem, which was listed as a participating organization in the J Street conference, issued a statement saying “we would not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker.” The statement referred to “grave suspicions regarding serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law under the Olmert government,” citing Cast Lead.

In her opening remarks Shaffir, the Israeli protest movement leader, suggested that the liberalism of J Street supporters could be a vaulable contribution to her country.

“I know and admire the histories of many of the communities and individuals in this room,” she said. “I know of your important history in the trade union movement, of your involvement in the civil rights’ struggle, and of the role that American Jewry takes today in fighting social justice in the U.S. and throughout the world. I know you fight not only for my country but also for my values.”