Fireworks At AIPAC Gathering
This year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, which begins Sunday, will take place against a more dramatic backdrop than usual: a looming crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, an administration squeeze on Israel and tumult in the American Jewish community over how to respond.
AIPAC conferences are always at their best when there’s a big U.S.-Israel crisis, according to longtime observers of the pro-Israel lobby group. This year’s crisis should provide plenty of fireworks.
The flash point could come on Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the group, which has won both praise and criticism from Jewish leaders for its vigorous efforts against U.S. pressure on his government. Netanyahu, Israeli sources say, will use the friendly venue to encourage the group to redouble its efforts.
has been extraordinarily effective in recent weeks, and their concern about the change in administration policy is not unfounded,” said the disgruntled director of another major Jewish group. “But there are many who think they’ve been effective in the wrong way — going to the barricades, when quiet persuasion with our friends in the administration is called for.”
AIPAC sources say that the group will go into this year’s policy conference more unified than ever, without the internal frictions that have seethed below the surface at recent gatherings.
Conference planners expect up to 3,000 participants, including a large number of students. In addition to Netanyahu, the roster will include Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s ambassador to the United States, Israeli Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, Knesset members, Israeli Defense Force officers and leaders of the Clinton administration’s Mideast peace process team, who could face a less enthusiastic reception than in previous years.
And Monday night’s banquet, a set piece intended to showcase the group’s political firepower, will be attended by scores of Senators, House members, administration officials and political wannabees.
Dueling Lobbyists On The Hill
AIPAC lobbyists were busy again this week on Capitol Hill, making the case that administration threats are bound to backfire.
But they weren’t the only group claiming to represent the American Jewish mainstream.
The Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports the Oslo process, dramatically increased its Capitol Hill visibility in response to the mounting crisis touched off by last week’s London conference and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “invitation” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — an invitation that sounded like an ultimatum to many Jewish leaders.
IPF activists told legislators and aides that American Jews still support the Clinton administration’s Mideast efforts. To punctuate the point, the group distributed its latest public opinion survey, conducted by a leading Democratic polling firm.
IPF also distributed talking points on “how Israel benefits from the U.S. bridging proposals to revive the Mideast peace talks.”
Several congressional offices reported intense activity from IPF activists.
“For the first time we’re seeing some pretty effective lobbying from groups that actively support the peace process,” said a congressional staffer who heard from several IPF lay leaders this week. “They’ve taken a page from AIPAC’s book by using concise, well-presented ‘one-pagers.’ ”
That’s not surprising; IPF’s congressional strategy is being directed by Elizabeth Schrayer, former political director at the pro-Israel lobby group, who said that despite some harsh blasts from Republican leaders, legislators were generally taking a wait-and-see attitude toward recent developments in the peace process.
On Tuesday, Americans for Peace Now was also on Capitol Hill with a similar message, targeting members of the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Fuel On Mideast Fires
There was lots of action in the “let’s see if we can make things worse in the Mideast” department in recent days.
First Lady Hillary Clinton fired the first salvos with her comments supporting a Palestinian state. Her declaration came just as U.S.-Israel tensions were reaching a peak over Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s ultimatum to the Likud government — and triggered an American Jewish response that extended beyond the specific issue of a Palestinian state.
The White House quickly insisted that the first lady, who was addressing Seeds of Peace, a group that brings Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together at a summer camp in Maine, was speaking for herself.
But Jewish right-wing groups said it was a kind of Freudian slip at best, at worst a crude threat. And more centrist activists wondered about the administration’s bad timing.
Clinton’s offhanded comments were a major reason the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations decided this week to write a letter to President Bill Clinton decrying what many Jewish leaders now see as unnecessary pressure on Israel — and asking the president to publicly promise that his administration will not recognize any unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, had pushed the Conference to send a strong missive. At an emergency meeting on Monday, the group voted to send the letter and seek a meeting with the president, which will apparently take place next week.
“I doubt we could have won this vote without Ms. Clinton’s statement,” Klein said.
Another bit of inflammatory commentary came from Churches for Middle East Peace, a group with a long tradition of throwing raw fuel on the Middle East fire.
The group, which represents a number of mainstream Christian denominations on Mideast matters, issued a statement calling on the United States to press for a “shared Jerusalem.”
In a letter, the group — a coalition of major Catholic and Protestant organizations — urged President Bill Clinton “to stand for a Jerusalem that is shared by its two peoples and three religious communities.”
Peace, they suggested, “can only be achieved in the context of a shared Jerusalem.”
GOP Alliance With Christian Right
Republican leaders in Congress, trying to head off a potentially devastating revolt from some of their key supporters, are looking for ways to please angry religious right leaders.
And that could be bad news for Jewish activists battling the Christian conservatives on a number of legislative fronts.
Last week, House Republican leaders met with top Evangelical leaders, including James Dobson, host of the popular Focus on the Family radio broadcast and Gary Bauer, the director of the Family Research Council and an all-but-announced candidate for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. The goal: to defuse the charge among the religious leaders that the GOP-led Congress has largely ignored their conservative legislative agenda.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) announced the creation of a “Values Action Team” that will focus on passing some of the Christian group’s top legislative priorities.
Also in attendance: House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Texas) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).
The new team will be headed by Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.).
This week, Jewish activists were wondering how that new arrangement will affect several key pieces of legislation promoted by Christian right forces, including the “religious liberty” amendment to the Constitution, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla).
“It’s very unsettling because it’s likely to have a dramatic impact,” said David Harris, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress. “If Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott take James Dobson seriously, we need to as well.”
Congressional offices, he said, are reporting an upsurge in calls and letters on a host of domestic issues favored by the Christian Right.
“This is very much a part of the Republican electoral strategy,” he said. “They’re worried about losing the House in November. They’re looking for ways to define themselves in strong terms.”
The new GOP-Christian partnership could also affect legislation by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), another Republican presidential contender, which would offer religious institutions government money to provide important services. Orthodox Jewish groups generally favor the Ashcroft proposal. Jewish “defense agencies” object because it would not require strict safeguards to make sure religious and social service functions are not mixed.
The Christian conservatives also indicated that they will work hard to repeal the “marriage tax penalty,” which results in higher tax bills for married couples, and to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts — issues that Jewish groups have not yet weighed in on.