WASHINGTON — J Street’s national conference, which formally gets under way on Sunday after an opening function Saturday night, will host a slew of prominent liberal Democrats, numerous members of Congress, a handful of Knesset members and no Republican speakers.
The speaking lineup for the liberal Jewish lobby group’s sixth confab — which runs from February 26-28 at the Washington Convention Center — includes three senators and three House members; four Knesset members and one Palestinian Authority official; one former US secretary of state and one former US negotiator on Israeli-Palestinian peace; many Democrats but no members of the Trump administration.
Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were invited but did not respond. (Secretary of state John Kerry and vice president Joe Biden spoke at last year’s conference.)
One of the most notable figures attending is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who ran an insurgent campaign for the party’s nomination in 2016. Many pundits consider him to be the current leader of the US progressive movement.
Since Sanders first came to Washington in 1991 as a House member, he has generally been focused more on domestic than foreign policy. But during the campaign, he made headlines for his criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while also describing himself as a supporter of the Jewish state who can relate to the challenges it faces.
“I do believe that Israel … has every right to destroy terrorism. But in Gaza there were 10,000 wounded civilians and 1,500 killed (in the 2014 war with Hamas). Was that a disproportionate attack? The answer is, I believe, it was,” he said during a debate with eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“As somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace … we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
Sanders — who will speak Monday afternoon — will be addressing J Street’s supporters for the first time. The gathering is expecting more than 3,500 attendees this year, up from last year’s 3,000.
Other well-known Democrats in Congress who will be there include California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a longtime J Street darling who was Clinton’s running mate.
Democrats no longer “in the arena” — as Theodore Roosevelt once famously put it — are going, as well. Former secretary of state for Bill Clinton Madeleine Albright will be there, and so will Martin Indyk, a longtime Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator, former US ambassador during Israel in the Clinton administration and special Middle East envoy during the Obama administration.
One of his old Palestinian counterparts will address the forum, too: chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Erekat also attended the 2015 conference, which caused Hillel president Eric Fingerhut to withdraw from speaking that year.
“My desire to attend the conference was based on my wish to speak at a student-only session directly with the students who will be in attendance,” Fingerhut said at the time. “However, after reviewing the full list of speakers, I now realize that any benefit that might come from this opportunity would be overshadowed by concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”
There will also be four Knesset members traveling directly from Israel to speak: Meretz’s Tamar Sandberg, Kulanu’s Akram Hasson (the only coalition member speaking) and Zionist Union’s Omer Ber-Lev will all speak Sunday night. They will be joined by Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint (Arab) List.
One notable absence is Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a stalwart J Street ally who has attended past conferences but was running to chair the Democratic National Committee, an election that took place over the weekend. He narrowly lost to former labor secretary Tom Perez.