Dennis Ross may have been the only notably mainstream pro-Israel speaker to attend the J Street conference, but the other attendees didn’t exactly seem grateful for his participation. At a conference panel about engaging Hamas, one speaker had some pointed criticisms about the group’s decision to appoint Dennis Ross as the keynote speaker. “It’s disappointing that you would still host someone like Dennis Ross after 20 years of peace failure,” said Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. His comment was met with an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, suggesting that many conference-goers agreed with the sentiment.
In a meeting with reporters, I asked J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami about the criticism, and he made it clear that his organization wasn’t involved in the decision to invite Ross. “We asked the [Obama] administration for a speaker, and they chose Dennis Ross,” he said.
Asked about Bishara’s comments specifically, Ben-Ami called his complaint “ridiculous.”
“We host plenty of people we don’t agree with, and that’s sort of ludicrous,” said Ben-Ami, implying that J Street sees itself at odds with Ross on the issues.
But while Ben-Ami rejected Bishara’s criticism of Ross, he also suggested that he wasn’t pleased that Ross avoided addressing Israel issues in his speech.
But the fact is, Ross’s views on Israel are undeniably different from the views held by many of the conference attendees. If his fairly broad speech about Middle East policy sparked such hostility, it seems likely that an address that focused more on Israel would have drawn even more ire from the crowd.
Obama-administration officials may be asking themselves why they bothered sending a representative at all, considering the chilly reception Ross received.