J Street, Israeli consul general at odds over public appearance

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The national pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street scheduled three high-profile public conversations on the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations this week on the West Coast — with the participation of a top Palestinian government official, but without similar representation from Israel.

Andy David

In three important venues — Seattle on Oct. 19, San Francisco on Oct. 20 and San Jose on Oct. 21 — J Street national president Jeremy Ben-Ami appeared in conversation with Palestinian ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, head of the official delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States. The two men were to discuss “prospects for peace” between Israel and the Palestinians, sharing  “ideas and common goals for achieving two states for two people,” according to news releases.

Andy David, Israel’s San Francisco-based consul general to the Pacific Northwest, received an invitation to the events — but not as a featured participant. He was invited, he said, to sit in the audience and listen.

“It’s very weird,” he told J. by phone. “I think that an organization that calls itself pro-Israel does not bring an official representative of the Palestinian Authority in from Washington, D.C. — someone who refuses to negotiate peace with Israel, who manages an international campaign to isolate and boycott Israel — to an event where he’s going to publicly discredit Israel under the auspices of that organization without the decency of also inviting an Israeli government representative.”

In a phone conversation with J., Ben-Ami said this week’s events would be the first time he had appeared in conversation with Areikat. If it goes well, Ben-Ami said, he envisions bringing the conversation to other cities.

When asked whether J Street had reached out to the Israeli consulate to take part in this onstage discussion about the future of Mideast peace, regional director Rachel Eisner confirmed that David had been invited as an audience member.

Jeremy Ben-Ami

David said the slight is part of an ongoing pattern. He noted that several times over the years he has offered to meet privately with J Street board members and activists to brief them on Israeli government positions regarding peace with the Palestinians. They have never taken him up on his offer, he said.

“They invite other experts and academics to speak publicly on the topic, and just invite me to sit in the audience and listen,” David said. 

David said he gets the same cold shoulder from the New Israel Fund, which invites him to its galas but never as a speaker. For example, when his consulate brought in Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, an expert on Bedouin affairs and this year’s winner of the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, he offered to have Almog brief the Bay Area board in private since Israel’s Bedouin community is an NIF priority.

“They never got back to me,” he told J. “I called again. They said, ‘We don’t have the bandwidth.’ I said, ‘I’ll organize everything, I’ll do the catering, whatever you need’ — I never heard back.”

David said he doesn’t expect to be given a platform at every Jewish community event — only those where Israel is the featured topic. And when local Jewish organizations such as the Federation or the American Jewish Committee organize events dealing with Israel, he said it’s common practice that they extend such an invitation to the Israeli consul general.

Responded J Street’s Eisner, “The consul general has generously offered to brief us, and we will look for opportunities to take him up on his offer. We do not in any way view hosting an event with the consul general and an event with the Palestinian ambassador as being mutually exclusive. We look forward to doing both.”

In any case, Ben-Ami said that this week’s talks “were not about Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, but about encouraging American Jews and American Palestinians to talk to each other.”

That didn’t comfort David. “This time, J Street has crossed the line,” he said. “They’re bringing an official representative of the Palestinian government. We know what he’s going to say. There are good people in the community who will come and hear a very biased program. It’s not an educational program, it’s an ideological program.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].