Abbas to address J Street confab as group seeks to top DC’s Israel lobby scene

PA president expected to thank Biden for restoring aid while urging further steps, and to express continued support for two-state solution while castigating Israel over settlements

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wears a mask upon his arriving to head the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wears a mask upon his arriving to head the Palestinian leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will address J Street’s national conference on Sunday as the once marginal left-wing, pro-Israel group seeks to position itself as the leading lobby on Middle East policy in the post-Trump era.

Abbas’s remarks will be pre-recorded and played for the more than 4,000 registered attendees at the virtual confab’s first day.

Confirming the address, J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami told The Times of Israel: “Just as we engage with a wide range of voices from Israeli politics and civil society, J Street has always seen it as important to also help promote and facilitate more meaningful dialogue between the American Jewish community and the Palestinian people, including their leadership.

“We’re pleased to host President Abbas at our conference this year, as the Palestinians seek to move on from the nadir of the Trump era and repair the bilateral relationship with the United States under President Biden,” Ben-Ami added.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addresses the liberal Zionist group’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. in October 2019 (Courtesy)

The PA president’s office confirmed the planned address but declined to comment further.

Abbas plans to use the opportunity to express his continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while also expressing his frustration over what he views as steps taken by Israel to make reaching such a resolution more unlikely, including settlement construction, a J Street staffer said.

The PA president is also expected to welcome recent steps taken by the Biden administration to restore the US-Palestinian bilateral relationship, which was severed by Ramallah in response to former president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that it was formally resuming $150 million in economic aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees, amidst a broader push to restore its aid to the Palestinians. The US announced an additional $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and $40 million in security assistance.

The Biden administration has also said it intends to reopen shuttered diplomatic missions in Jerusalem and Washington. The Trump administration merged the US consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as the de facto representative to the Palestinians, into its new embassy in the capital, making the Palestinian portfolio a subset of the broader US-Israel relationship.

Trump shuttered the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington in 2018 against the backdrop of Ramallah’s refusal to engage with his administration’s peace initiative. Reopening the mission would be legally trying due to existing US laws that target the PA so long as it continues to pursue charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court, in addition to its welfare policy that awards regular stipends to security prisoners convicted of terror attacks against Israelis.

Then-US president Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

A source familiar with the matter said that while the administration would like to see both missions reopened, the one in Washington will be a particular challenge. The US will also need Israel’s approval to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem, to which it expects to face opposition but not of the unyielding kind, the source said.

This will be the first time that Abbas will be addressing the annual conference of J Street, which was founded in 2007, seeking to provide Democratic lawmakers with political cover in the Jewish community to take more progressive stances on issues relating to Israel.

The group entered a space in Washington that was almost exclusively filled by the more mainstream American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Also labeling itself as pro-Israel, AIPAC works to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and rarely comes out against positions taken by the Israeli government.

Executive branch members addressing J Street’s conference will include US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and White House Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond. From Congress, senators Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be speaking along with left-leaning Israeli party leaders Merav Michaeli from Labor, Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz and Ayman Odeh from the Joint List.

Also addressing the two-day conference will be UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba, Will & Grace actress Debra Messing and former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

The group plans to use the conference to further its agenda in support of the Biden administration’s efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal vacated by Trump in 2018 with the backing of the Israeli government. J Street is also increasingly speaking in favor of restricting US aid from Israel from being used in actions entrenching the Jewish state’s control in the West Bank — be it settlement expansion, annexation, home demolitions, or certain military operations beyond the Green Line.

The lobby is currently backing legislation introduced Thursday by Rep. Betty McCollum seeking to regulate US aid accordingly. AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel — a newer pro-Israel lobby to the right of J Street — have already come out against the bill.

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