That squeak audible over Washington this week was the sound of the pro-Israel lobby turning on a dime. Stung by criticism by some Labor leaders of a longstanding pro-Likud tilt, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), began a quick readjustment at this week’s annual policy conference in Washington.
“What you’re hearing is an organization adapting to a new environment,” said Gary Polland, a longtime AIPAC activist from Texas who objected to the softening of some traditional AIPAC positions.
The shift included removal of traditional language in the group’s annual “Action Agenda” opposing creation of a Palestinian state.
Instead, following the lead of incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the group now officially supports “a political solution in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would permit
the exercise of Palestinian self-government while excluding those powers that endanger the security of Israel.”
AIPAC, while reaffirming its insistence that the administration move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, quietly instructed delegates who blanketed Capitol Hill on Tuesday not to lobby for proposed legislation designed to force the administration’s hand, saying the time is not ripe for a confrontation over the embassy.
Several weeks ago, some pro-peace process activists charged that AIPAC was encouraging Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to introduce such a resolution.
The overall tone of the conference was more sedate than in recent years, with less PLO bashing and fewer criticisms of the Clinton administration — although Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the Monday night keynoters, got in a few partisan licks on the embassy issue.
Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein, one of few public officials capable of transcending Israel’s gaping partisan divisions, opened the conference in a session focusing on Israel’s role as a unifying force in Jewish life.
“It’s a transitional time,” said a member of AIPAC’s executive committee. “We’re doing what we always do — supporting the duly elected government in Israel. There are always some bumps when we do this, but so far the transition is going more smoothly than usual.”
Glitter At AIPAC Gala
Pundits here and in Israel routinely claim AIPAC’s power is on the wane, but apparently lawmakers and administration officials haven’t gotten the message.
In what has become a yearly display of political ostentation, AIPAC leaders called off the names of the senators and House members in attendance at the Monday night dinner. As usual, the results were striking: half of the U.S. Senate, a quarter of the House and numerous administration officials, foreign diplomats and political hopefuls.
Both top House leaders were in the audience — Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). One of the biggest ovations went to former Speaker Newt Gingrich; one of the smallest was offered for Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, a Republican, was the most popular man at the policy conference, sponsoring an ice cream reception after the Monday night banquet that attracted hundreds of hungry activists.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) praised AIPAC’s Political Leadership Development Program, which marked its 20th anniversary at this week’s conference, as an “investment in the future,” and cited the example of his own chief of staff, a graduate of the program — Robert Bassin.
One prominent official who was not in attendance: Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), an AIPAC regular. But it was an excused absence; Lowey was being feted at a New York fund-raiser by First Lady Hillary Clinton — the woman who has put Lowey’s life on hold.
Lowey was the predicted front-runner for the Democratic nomination to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But Lowey refuses to run against Clinton. For months, she has sat on the sidelines, waiting for the first lady to make a decision.
Barak did not address the convention. During the campaign, Barak forces had complained that AIPAC had offered a platform to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just before what was expected to be a close runoff election.
After last week’s Barak landslide, AIPAC officials let it be known that Netanyahu was no longer expected, and issued a belated invitation to the victor. Barak declined, citing the urgent demands of forming a ruling coalition.
But Barak sent a note praising AIPAC for its “invaluable contribution to strengthening the U.S.-Israeli relations throughout the years.”
AIPAC officials claimed 900 paid registrants and 600 students. Insiders say the total was down by several hundred.
Ross Repudiates UN Res. 181
With the Clinton administration getting set for another major Mideast peace push, officials here are also beginning to speak out more vocally about the latest Palestinian maneuver in the stalled talks.
At a session of the AIPAC conference on Monday, special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross made the strongest statement yet rejecting recent Palestinian claims that UN Resolution 181 — the original UN partition plan that was rejected by the entire Arab world when it was passed in 1947 — should be the basis for new negotiations.
Ross told the group that the only relevant UN guidelines are resolutions 242 and 338. “Any other basis is not relevant,” he said.
Ross’ comments came only hours after Vice President Al Gore used less direct language to reject the 181 push.
Under 181, Israel would have to accept the internationalization of Jerusalem and concede vast amounts of territory. In contrast, 242 and 338 simply set forth the commonly accepted principle of land-for-peace negotiations.
Many pro-Israel activists have criticized the administration’s slow response to the 181 gambit; Ross’ comments suggests officials here have finally decided to act, now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way out.
But a top Israeli diplomat, while welcoming Ross’ comments, said they didn’t go far enough.
“It’s the closest they’ve come to a rejection [of 181],” he said. “But for some reason they’re still skirting the issue. They don’t want to come right out and say this is an inappropriate and harmful strategy on the part of the Palestinians.”
Administration insiders say they’re not sure if the recent focus on 181 represents a genuine change in the Palestinians’ negotiating stance — or simply another negotiating ploy by Yasir Arafat. Israeli officials say it doesn’t matter. Either way, the new Palestinian rhetoric can only erode Israeli confidence in the peace process.
Last week’s stunning defeat of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means some major foreign policy housecleaning. No appointments are likely before a new government is formed, but that hasn’t stopped pundits here and in Israel from intense speculation.
With Ambassador Zalman Shoval getting ready to go back home less than a year into his second tour of duty in Washington, the top post at the Israeli ambassador here is one of the major plums incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak has to hand out.
Israeli sources say there are two front runners: Amnon Shahak, the former army chief of staff, and Uzi Baram, a former tourism minister.
Sources say Barak is under pressure to find a high-profile post for Shahak, who flirted with the idea of running for Netanyahu’s job as candidate of the new center party but stepped aside for the wildly unsuccessful Yitzhak Mordechai. But not too high profile; Barak is probably not interested in grooming the competition.
And Shahak, sources say, has experience in negotiating with the Syrians. In the past, Syrian-Israel diplomacy has centered on the embassy here.
Baram has privately indicated interest in the job, according to reports in Israel — and some Labor leaders say the Knesset member has the communication and diplomatic skills for it.
Education IRAs Divide Jews — Again
They’re back: another proposal has surfaced in Congress that some Jewish groups say would siphon money away from public schools in favor of private and parochial schools. But others — mostly representing the Orthodox world — are supporting the measure.
The proposal involves tax-free education “IRAs” which would allow parents to put aside up to $2,000 per year in tax-free accounts to be used for expenses at either public or private schools.
Last week the bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee, setting the stage for a confrontation with President Bill Clinton, who vetoed a similar measure last year.
A number of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) oppose the proposal. But fighting the IRAs is more difficult than fighting school vouchers, some Jewish activists say, because there is not as strong a church-state argument to be made.
“We are against anything that takes money out of the public schools — especially proposals that masquerade as help for the schools,” said JCPA’s Washington Representative, Reva Price.
But Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, said the proposal “will increase options and opportunities for students in both public and private schools and help parents use their own resources to provide what’s best for their children’s educational achievement.”
Education savings accounts, he said, could be used for tutoring, transportation and computers for public school students, as well as private school tuition.
The measure is being sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).