Obama Administration, Scared of AIPAC, Punts on J Street

By Jeffrey Goldberg

(UPDATED BELOW)

J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel group, is having its big conference in Washington starting this weekend. It's not going to be an AIPAC-sized 13,000-person circus, but J Street is still expecting 2,500 people or so. One person who won't be coming is President Obama, even though (or perhaps because) roughly 100 percent of the attendees will be Obama supporters. The Administration isn't sending the vice president, the secretaries of state or defense, or the national security adviser, either, to speak at the conference. Instead, in a clear sign that the Administration is spooked by AIPAC, which sees J Street as a left-flank threat, the White House, according to J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami, is sending Tony Blinken, the vice president's national security adviser and a senior official of the National Security Council, to speak to the gathering next Monday.

One important note: Tony Blinken is a great guy (and a friend-of-Goldblog), a huge brain, a powerful inside player, and a highly-respected adviser to both the president and vice-president. But he's not the president, or the vice-president, or a cabinet-level official.  He's the choice of a White House that isn't interested in upsetting its tenuous relationship with the Jewish establishment.

J Street's head, Ben-Ami, told me he's disappointed with the White House.

"Tony Blinken is one of the absolute best foreign policy thinkers in the Administration, so he's a great representative for the Administration to send, but I also think they're missing an opportunity to excite a passionate portion of their base." Ben-Ami went on, "This decision is really indicative of the problem we started J Street to fix. This is precisely the kind of calculation that shouldn't be made."

Goldblog readers know I have many doubts about J Street's actual policy ideas (I have plenty of doubts about AIPAC as well.) But I believe that J Street should be part of the pro-Israel conversation in America, and it would be quite a signal if the White House sent a higher-ranking official to speak to the group. But it seems that the White House will do nothing to inflame the right-leaning AIPAC just months before the general election.

UPDATE: A spokesman for AIPAC, Patrick Dorton, called me to object to my description of  the group as "right-leaning." I told him that this is what my eyes and ears led me to believe, but he said, "I object to that characterization. AIPAC is at its core a bipartisan organization, with plenty of Democrats as well as Republicans."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/obama-administration-scared-of-aipac-punts-on-j-street/254797/