Picking A FightWith Clinton?
The drill used to be simple. In times of tension between the United States and Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee would lobby lawmakers to sign statements and letters to the administration backing Jerusalem. And the members would sign on, to pretty much universal applause from organized Jewry.
But this week Jewish groups were divided over an all-out campaign by the pro-Israel lobby against a rumored administration squeeze on Israel. And even as AIPAC — in its most intense drive in years — got 81 senators in just four days to sign a letter implicitly criticizing President Clinton, a majority of the Jewish lawmakers in the House of Representatives signed a letter praising his Middle East policies.
The Senate letter, sponsored by Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.)
and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), strongly cautioned the White House against its reported intention to publicize a U.S. “bridging proposal” that aimed to break a long deadlock in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“We share your administration’s frustration with this lack of movement [in the negotiations],” the lawmakers wrote, “but believe it would be a serious mistake for the United States to change from its traditional role as facilitator of the peace process to using public pressure against Israel.”
In addition, 150 House members signed a similar letter authored by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), although Engel toned down the implicit criticism of Clinton. “We would like to express our concern about published reports that our government intends to publicly present a proposal which includes a specific withdrawal figure to Israel and the Palestinians.”
Some pro-Israel leaders protested that the letters and AIPAC’s high-pressure drive to get lawmakers to sign them were out of proportion to any action being contemplated by an administration perceived widely as among the friendliest Israel has ever had. They warned of a harsh response as the White House pondered what to do in the wake of Mideast envoy Dennis Ross’ latest failed effort to break the Israel-Palestinian deadlock.
“There’s a great danger that AIPAC exaggerated the danger and unnecessarily described it as a critical emergency,” said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and past president of the American Zionist Movement.
AIPAC officials insisted the threat of administration pressure on Israel was real. But Reich, along with Israel Policy Forum president Jack Bendheim, sent a private letter to AIPAC’s leadership this week protesting the tone of the group’s efforts.
In addition, Israel Policy Forum promoted a separate letter to Clinton sponsored by Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) strongly praising the administration’s efforts and urging it to stay the course. That letter was signed by 31 House members, including 15 of its 24 Jewish members.
AIPAC’s effort also stirred the waters at a meeting last Thursday of the Presidents Conference, organized Jewry’s official arm for voicing its consensus on Israel. Officials of several leading groups there complained that AIPAC had not consulted with them until the congressional letters were in circulation.
Their views reflected not just worries about the administration’s possible reaction but continuing divisions in the organized community over the Middle East peace process and the administration’s effort to advance it.
Indeed, administration officials made it known privately that the flurry of congressional activity was not well received. Mideast envoy Ross paid calls on a number of legislators, but he was unable to stem the rush to sign the AIPAC-initiated letter.
Among other things, administration officials felt the letter’s premise was inaccurate: that President Clinton and his Mideast team were planning to coerce Israel into making risky concessions to a Palestinian Authority that had not lived up to its part of the Oslo bargain.
In response to a more positive letter from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and several other Democratic senators, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote last Friday that the administration, “remains determined to pursue … negotiations and to do so privately without public disclosure of details of proposals while we are in the process of exploring them with the parties.”
The eruption came after weeks of intensive lobbying by representatives of the Netanyahu government against any public unveiling of the Clinton administration’s widely reported bridging proposals. These include a proposal for an Israeli redeployment from about 13 percent of the West Bank in stages tied to specific improvements in the Palestinian Authority’s security performance.
Palestinians would assume civil control of the territory from which Israel would withdraw. But Israel would retain overall security control over much of the land.
The Palestinians have agreed grudgingly to the U.S. proposals. But the Netanyahu government has rejected them.
By midweek, the administration decided to send Ross back to the Mideast after Passover to try again to narrow the diplomatic gaps. The decision indicated Clinton’s reluctance to precipitate a confrontation with Israel, perhaps because of the AIPAC-initiated Senate letter or the fact that Vice President Al Gore will be in Israel at the end of April for 50th anniversary celebrations, or both.
Jewish activists here felt the AIPAC letter was a definite factor in Clinton’s decision not to go public with the American proposal, at least for another few weeks.
“AIPAC was very active, and they pushed very hard,” said a House source. “Their lobbying was very effective, in part because they conveyed a real sense of urgency because of the recess.”
AIPAC, several sources said, also encouraged legislators not to sign to the Gejdenson letter.
But Reich, the former Presidents Conference chair, warned, “The danger is that we’re alienating an administration that has been very supportive of Israel. And beyond that, what’s occurred is not reflective of what I see as the sense of the community, which is supportive of the administration’s role.”
Reich and others were particularly disturbed by daily “Action Alerts” AIPAC sent its members nationwide. Citing news reports that the administration was preparing to unveil its peace proposals, the alerts exhorted AIPAC members in bold headlines: “Urge Congress to Help Save the Peace Process.”
Even some Jewish leaders who agreed with the content of the Mack-Lieberman letter worried about what they saw as AIPAC’s harsh tone.
“The problem was the packaging from AIPAC, which suggested a big crisis, where the United States wanted to force Israel to act in a way that’s detrimental to its future,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. “The Mack-Lieberman letter does not reflect the level of hysteria that one finds in the alerts.”
Foxman voiced concern that by rushing to the barricades over a rumored shift in U.S. policy, pro-Israel groups might be limiting their ability to respond to real crises in the future.
But an AIPAC spokesperson asserted, “The issue of U.S. pressure is far from imaginary.” And some Jewish officials defended the sense of urgency.
“AIPAC’s business is to persuade people to join this cause,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. Referring to the controversial action alerts, Baum said that “it’s not what I would have done, but each of us has a style; their style has worked magnificently over the years. The letter has attracted tremendous support.”
This week, the conference was readying two letters — one to the signers of the Senate letter thanking them for their efforts and one to the administration, with a carefully worded blend of warnings against the imposition of American ideas on the Israelis and praise for the administration’s ongoing involvement in the peace effort.