In an important but not wholly unexpected move, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren will not attend the J Street conference this weekend but will instead send a lower-ranking representative. J Street press spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told Haaretz's Natasha Mozgovaya that J Street is still extending the invitation.
While it is disappointing that the ambassador will not be lending Israeli support to an organization which, despite its center-left tendencies, is still very much pro-Israel, the decision is a safe one for a few reasons.
1) Legitimizing J Street would anger the right wing base in Israel supporting the Netanyahu government. After finally consolidating a constituency in the wake of the Obama settlement fiasco, Netanyahu would be foolish to give that up. And even moderate Israelis are not huge fans of either J Street or the Obama administration.
2) On balance, Oren's attendance would probably be seen as more negative than positive in the American Jewish community. As influential as J Street may be politically, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the ZOA, and other groups still represent a huge constituency in the U.S. Traditional right-wing support for Israel is especially critical to Netanyahu now as he fights a crusade against the fallout from the Goldstone report in the international community. At a time when J Street has more influence over the administration than the ZOA, reassurance and support of these traditional groups from the Israeli government is important.
3) All other considerations aside, J Street represents an organization which, while not anti-Israel, stands against several policies of the current Israeli government. Just as an American ambassador for President Obama would be highly unlikely to speak for an "Israelis for Overturning Roe v. Wade" conference, it is not at all unreasonable that the Israeli government would avoid an organization which very publicly opposes its policies.
Unfortunately, there's a difference between knowing why the decision is a good one and knowing the actual factors that went into making it. While I can speculate that #3 accounted for the vast majority of the ultimate decision, insight into the Israeli decision-making process is hard to come by these days (though evidently would-be spies for the Mossad are not). It would also be interesting to see if Oren would have gone but was held back by the government (he has appeared at several Arab and Muslim events in the DC area). Regardless, this is likely to be only the opening round of a long battle between J Street and the Netanyahu administration, and one which is likely to have a significant, and positive, effect on the US-Israel relationship.
And all of this will not detract from the fact that the J Street conference this weekend will be an important and historic event which is likely lend an unprecedented voice to those who believe in moderate and pragmatic solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict. I, for one, will see you there.