Sunday, February 27, 2011

J Street Day 2

Panels and plenary sessions ruled the second day of the J Street conference. the organization brought in a number of well respected speakers who contributed a variety of viewpoints to an audience who was not afraid to voice its opinion on those viewpoints.
One such panel was an afternoon session on "resolving the Middle East conflict as a core national security interest," featuring CAP senior fellow Brian Katulis, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, and APN's Lara Friedman. Katulis took the broad view, arguing that the prolonged conflict impacted US interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. Col. Wilkerson, adding color commentary, made clear his axe to grind with the US government in general and the Bush administration in particular. He proudly proclaimed that he had "voted for Obama, and I'm a Republican." Lara Friedman took a policy-focused, metered approach. She was the subject matter expert of the three, and her understanding was nuanced, if decidedly liberal. Of the three, she also pushed the point hardest that the problem was not only a "failure of leadership," but that pragmatically, a peace agreement was a security interest of the United States. Katulis largely concurred with Friedman that "the one-state solution isn't a solution to anything."

The afternoon's plenary session involved 5 members of Knesset, including 4 from Kadima and one from Labor. In addition to enjoying the warm camaraderie and friendly teasing between the MPs, the panel was also very informative on the future of Israeli politics. While moderator Barbara Slavin made little effort to mask her personal beliefs, she asked compelling and pointed questions, steering away from any softballs.

For the audience, the split highlighted the difference between J Street's moderate and radical factions. This was not an audience which wanted to hear about delegitimization, or about Gilad Shalit. MK Nachman Shai, who was representing the Kadima party position, did his best to present a position largely considered moderate to a comfortably left audience. But his alienation by the end was awkward. He was chastised as an Israeli for Israeli policies by American Jews. J Street as an organization clearly has made efforts to include a broad spectrum of views. But this norm has not penetrated to its constituents. This may continue to pose a problem for J Street as it seeks to legitimize and center itself as a policy organization. While far left activists may be great organizers, they also may pose a liability to an organization seeking to present itself as mainstream, not without challenge.

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