Washington — Even as Washington seemed to back down from its ultimatum to Israel, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby here found themselves driven by fear that any positive statement about the administration’s efforts to break the Israel-Palestinian stalemate would be seen as endorsing administration pressure.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee went into its annual policy conference last Sunday with a draft resolution on the table endorsing “the continuation of energetic American efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East through a close working relationship between the United States and Israel.”
But that was scrapped by mid-afternoon that day after more hawkish members of AIPAC’s executive committee worked their magic over the draft language that was put before them.
In the end, all that remained was a favorable reference to a close U.S.-Israel relationship and general language supporting a U.S. role in “encouraging and facilitating negotiations.”
And so it went.
Delegates to this week’s AIPAC conference were gripped with a new hardline fervor that surprised both AIPAC staffers and insurgents who successfully pushed the group to take a tougher stand against recent administration efforts to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The shift to the right was reflected in a number of changes the willful executive committee forced through when AIPAC staffers presented it with their proposed version of the annual resolutions.
The series of votes on policy resolutions “certainly indicates a change in overall attitude,” said Mel Salberg, chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I think the language speaks for itself. The changes indicate a hardening of position.”
Pro-peace process groups and several opposition politicians in Israel mobilized to make the conference into something other than the expected pep rally for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the conference’s top speaker.
But in the end, concern that the pro-Israel lobby might be seen as endorsing U.S. pressure on Israel and missteps by the Clinton administration combined to pull the 2,000-plus delegates to the right.
House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who spoke to the delegates on Tuesday, attributed the hard-edged mood to two factors — excitement about Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration, and anger over recent administration actions, including its recent ultimatum to the Netanyahu government, Monday’s lifting of sanctions on Iran and Libya and First Lady Hillary Clinton’s declaration of support for a Palestinian state.
Those factors “combined to create a heightened sense of awareness that some people had better be constantly raising these questions with the Clinton administration, because they seem to have no sound underpinning in terms of their understanding of the Middle East,” Gingrich said.
But pro-Oslo activists saw the policy conference through a different lens.
“This conference was an operation to defend Netanyahu, end of discussion,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “AIPAC has been effective in organizing Congress against the administration’s efforts, but I think the White House is very well aware of the fact that the Jewish community is profoundly divided on the peace process, as is the Israeli public. If AIPAC’s goal was to preempt the American peace initiative, I don’t think they succeeded.”
On Sunday, AIPAC’s executive committee approved a set of policy resolutions that in some cases put the pro-Israel group to the right of the prime minister and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently told a Jewish group that Israel will “have to come to terms with a Palestinian state.”
The annual “Action Agenda” is intended to provide a rough outline for the group’s political efforts for the next year.Asked about the vote, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union and a leader in the successful effort to toughen an early policy statement draft, beamed and gave a thumbs up sign.
“It was a great victory,” he said. “I was surprised at how much support we got.”Even pro-Israel activists who consider themselves centrists felt that “the administration had crossed a line” with its conditional invitation to a Washington summit two weeks ago, Ganchrow said.
A proposed statement supporting U.S. opposition to the establishment of a “Palestinian state with full, unlimited sovereign powers” was edited because delegates worried it would put AIPAC on record for the first time endorsing at least a limited state, an assessment pro-peace process activists agreed with.
In the final version, the executive committee declared blanket opposition to a Palestinian state, while endorsing “a political solution in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would permit the exercise of Palestinian self-government…”
“It was all pro-Netanyahu at today’s meeting,” said an exultant Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Every resolution Prime Minister Netanyahu would have wanted passed overwhelmingly.”
The group also passed a resolution Klein had first introduced at last year’s meeting demanding the extradition and prosecution in this country of Palestinian terrorists who kill Americans.
The resulting document, Klein said, will send a strong message to the Clinton administration, which felt AIPAC’s sting several weeks ago after the group mobilized 81 senators to sign a toughly worded letter warning against new pressure on Israel.
AIPAC’s lay and professional leaders were taken aback by the revolt, said Gary Polland, an executive committee member from Texas.
“There was a level of intensity that I think AIPAC didn’t expect.”
Polland, a proud “hawk,” was pleased with the results.
The mood of the delegates was also apparent in the mild heckling of Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, a former pro-Israel activist and head of an AIPAC-affiliated think tank, and in the enthusiastic reception for Netanyahu, who spoke on Sunday after wrapping up his U.S. visit.
But pro-peace process activists were dismayed by the executive committee’s actions and the hardline tone that pervaded the policy conference.
“The AIPAC staff recommendations offered some flexibility and practicality in the real world, but that was defeated by those who were concerned that news stories would say that AIPAC supported a Palestinian state,” said Seymour Reich, former president of the American Zionist Movement. “The vote demonstrated that when people in the center don’t pull together and stand up for what they believe in, those on the right will dominate.”
The AIPAC group was angry, Reich added, “because the administration overplayed its hand with talk of a ‘reprieve’ for Israel, and they were alarmed by the first lady’s comments [supporting creation of a Palestinian state.] They were mad and they just weren’t going to take it any more.”
Several participants agreed that fear about how AIPAC would be portrayed was the driving force during the policy discussions.
“The discussion centered very much on how the Jewish newspapers would interpret every last phrase,” said one participant. “Some were motivated by their anger at what the administration was doing, but many others went along because they didn’t want AIPAC to be seen as softening its positions at a time when U.S. policy toward Israel seems to be changing.”
That echoed last week’s debate in the President’s Conference, in which concern about how the administration initiative was being portrayed in the press was a major factor in the group’s decision to send a strongly worded letter to President Bill Clinton.
“You have to respond to perceptions, because now perceptions become reality,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the President’s Conference, who was in Washington for the AIPAC conference. “Every word is being weighed; if you don’t say a certain thing, you’ll see headlines right away distorting that.”
Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, rejected charges that the pro-Israel lobby has shifted to the right.
The policy statements “reflect the center of where the community is, and the consensus in the Conference of Presidents,” said Kohr, who added that “AIPAC has been, is and will be committed to the peace process.”
But some leading Israeli politicians detected a clear pro-Likud tilt in the program even before the conference.
Only one Labor Party official had a major role in the event — Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Yossi Beilin, a leading dove, distributed an open letter to delegates warning of a “dangerous deviation” from AIPAC’s traditional goal of supporting strong U.S.-Israel relations and a secure Israel.
“AIPAC should never be open to the accusation that it is serving the interests of the extreme-right in Israel, should never be open to the accusation that it has become an obstacle to peace and must never be open to the accusation that it is championing confrontation rather than cooperation with the U.S. government,” he said.