Tzachi Hanegbi tells me it was "a simple decision" to attend this fall's J Street conference in Washington. He says he "believes in having a dialogue with Jewish organizations", and that he doesn't quite understand what benefit one gains from "boycotting such organizations". In this case, his generally low key manner of speech fits the message. It's no big deal. "We should have a dialogue with everyone", he says, and reminds me of his role at the Knesset caucus for strengthening the Jewish people.
No big deal? J Street surely would make a big deal out of it, and the press is already doing so, calling it a "breakthrough" and other such names. "It's no small thing when Likud, a Revisionist Zionist party founded by fierce two-state opponent Menachem Begin, sends a representative to the conference of an organization founded to push the two-state solution", wrote Ben Sales of JTA.
I'm not sure the "breakthrough" has much to do with a Likudnik attnding a gathering of supporters of the two state solution – AIPAC supports the two state solution and has plenty of Likud members attending its conferences. And Hanegbi is far from being the typical caricature of a Likud zealot – he left with Ariel Sharon to form Kadima, and is hardly a fierce opponent of compromise with the Palestinians (he is very hawkish on the issue of Iran, though). But truly, a Likudnik attending a conference of this particular organization is a novelty. It is seen as a precedent not only on the left (which is celebrating) but also on the right (which is stunned). You see, some members of the right have little patience with J Street and its agenda, and those members believe that "Either Tzachi has no clue what J Street is, or he is playing dumb".
He agreed to meet with representatives of the organization Im Tirtzu to hear more about the reservations they have and why they think he should pull out of the conference. The list of grievances is long, but I assume Hanegbi already knows that. "There are a lot of complaints against them", he told me, "some of them might be correct". Yet when the critics of his move complain about him "playing dumb" they aren't completely off the mark. Hanegbi says that he isn't "exactly familiar with the positions of the organization". He said that he raised some concerns in the meeting he had with the heads of J Street as they approached him, and that they "defended themselves" against some of the complaints and told him that "they are pro-Zionists". And he wants to believe that they are.
One gets the impression that Hanegbi wasn't trying to be the investigator the jury and the judge of J Street – he didn't dig too deep into the many, and at times puzzling, positions the organization has taken over the years. This can be the result of sloppiness and inattention, or the result of his firm position that dialogue is preferable to boycott. If this is what he truly believes, then it doesn't really matter what the organization says or does as long as Hanegbi is free to attend and to express "the view of the right", as he believes "it is important" for them to get a sense of what the right thinks about matters that concern us all. "Israel doesn't belong to the Likud", he says, "and if we begin to filter the forces with which we agree to talk it will not be good".
J Street sold Hanegbi their usual shtick: they can reach out to young Jews with which Israel has difficulties communicating. It worked. Responsible Israelis like him see the value of speaking to young Jews of the left, and are looking for vehicles that can provide for such a connection. Hanegbi isn't "shying away from the discussion and from trying to influence their stances". He isn't worried about giving J Street more legitimacy and hence making them more powerful. With Olmert, Livni, Minister Perry, Israeli official diplomats and many other Israelis that accepted a J Street invitation, the question of J-Street's Israeli legitimacy is pretty much answered at this point.