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* Claiming the center as Mideast returns to the fore
* Obama to make first visit to Israel as president
* Conservatives say J Street still a minnow next to AIPAC
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - J Street, a liberal Jewish-American lobbying group barely five years old and once shunned by top Israeli officials, is claiming as a victory the fact that Chuck Hagel was confirmed as defense secretary despite opposition from more conservative Jewish groups.
In the week when the most influential Jewish-American group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, held its annual conference in Washington, J Street has been touting its role in securing Hagel's nomination, which supporters say shows its growing clout.
J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said he called Hagel in December as soon as he heard rumors that President Barack Obama wanted the former Republican senator to be his secretary of defense.
It was weeks before the nomination became public, but it took only a day for the group to issue its first statement supporting Hagel, who would endure attacks from groups such as the hawkish Republican-linked Emergency Committee for Israel.
Hagel was heavily criticized for saying in a 2006 interview that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress.
"I called and said, 'Do you realize you need a defense?'" Ben-Ami said.
"I just sensed right away that this was going to be very serious, and people are going to seize on one word, one phrase and they are going to take it and extrapolate it out and make it a blanket smear," Ben-Ami said.
Lou Ann Linehan, a former Hagel staffer who worked with him during the nomination fight, gives credit to J Street for its support. "From the very first, they were always helpful with getting the facts. Just facts," she said.
The White House declined to comment on J Street. Obama aides have made clear privately that they were well aware of the advice the group gave to Hagel's camp about how to get through what would become a rocky confirmation process.
Ben-Ami and other J Street personnel wrote op-eds on Hagel's behalf, set up a website, and created a campaign targeted to Jewish-Americans - "Smear a bagel, not Chuck Hagel" - in which J Street pledged to send bagels to local food banks in honor of conservative Hagel opponent Bill Kristol, for every 18 people who signed a pro-Hagel petition.
SPIN OR INFLUENCE?
Conservatives say J Street overstates its influence, and is not a player compared with AIPAC, which has spent 60 years establishing itself in Washington and drew up to 10,000 people - including dozens of politicians - to its annual conference this past week. AIPAC declined to comment for this story.
"I can easily picture that J Street is spinning (Hagel's confirmation) as a demonstration of their new influence because they've been desperately trying to convince people of their influence ever since they came on the block. But I'm very skeptical," said Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a well-known neo-conservative foreign policy commentator.
Hagel's confirmation, he said, was due more to Obama's clout after just being re-elected and the Israeli government's decision not to get involved.
J Street has made missteps over the years.
Ben-Ami apologized for having made misleading statements about the role of George Soros in 2010, when the group acknowledged accepting large donations from the liberal financier - hated by conservatives - after earlier saying it had not. Soros's organization has said he makes no secret of his donation. The financier contributes to a wide array of groups.
Some observers say J Street also battles a perception that it is too close to the Obama administration, raising questions about its influence if a Republican president succeeds Obama.
"J Street strikes me as being an organization that's much more comfortable in the Democratic party," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Ben-Ami was among more than 20 Jewish community leaders, including some from AIPAC, who met Obama on Thursday to provide input for his first trip as president to Israel later this month.
J Street describes itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace." It is more supportive than many other Jewish groups of a "two-state" Middle East agreement leading to an independent Palestinian state and a secure Israel.
Ben-Ami, who served as an aide to then President Bill Clinton and worked on a series of Democratic political campaigns, founded the group in his basement five years ago.
Today it says it has 50 staff, 15,000 donors and some 180,000 supporters. Its political action committee distributed $1.8 million to candidates last year.
But the going has not been easy. Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, declined an invitation to speak at the group's inaugural 2009 conference - where Hagel delivered the keynote - although the two reportedly have since reconciled. The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2010, some politicians, including New York Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, publicly rejected J Street's backing, under pressure from conservative Jewish American leaders and Israeli officials who said its positions were anti-Israel.
In last November's election, it endorsed 71 candidates - all Democrats - for federal offices. While it's unclear how influential the J Street endorsement was, 70 of the 71 won.
Just last year, after the United Nations approved the de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood, J Street successfully opposed efforts by more conservative groups to close the Palestinian office in Washington in retaliation. Ben-Ami counts that as a victory for J Street's moderate position.
A possible sign of better relations with Israel came last month when members of a congressional delegation to Israel organized by J Street met with top government officials. Three years ago, Israel's foreign ministry had boycotted the J Street delegation.
"In 2013, it's fair to say that J Street has established its place as an important advocacy group in the larger pro-Israel community," said Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt under Clinton and to Israel from 2001 to 2005 during the administration of George W. Bush. (Editing by Warren Strobel and Claudia Parsons)