Washington will be filled to overflowing with assorted protesters over the weekend, and some promise to turn their attention to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
More than 3,000 pro-Israel activists from around the country, a record number, are expected to gather for the AIPAC event, which traditionally sets the tone and establishes the themes for the pro-Israel movement.
A big Palestinian solidarity march will reportedly want to greet the AIPAC delegates at the Washington Hilton with civil disobedience. Leaders of the anti-Israel gathering have reached out to left-wing groups that will be in town to protest meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“There’s a real effort under way by the pro-Arab groups to join forces with the anti-globalization
forces,” said a leading Jewish activist here. “That could be an explosive mix.”
But the biggest target of their ire won’t be there. Prime Minster Ariel Sharon had to cancel his AIPAC appearance because of the ongoing violence in the region.
The AIPAC meeting will emphasize support and appreciation for the Bush administration’s pro-Israel stance and its worldwide war against terrorism, but also sharp-edged concern that the administration is being hypocritical by forcing Israel to restrain its own war against terrorism.
“The mood throughout our community is very schizophrenic,” said a longtime AIPAC activist. “There is a real feeling the administration is on the right track when it comes to terrorism around the world, but fear it will get derailed in the Middle East when the terrorist is Yasir Arafat. That feeling will be reflected at AIPAC.”
This source said AIPAC leaders appreciate the deep pro-Israel convictions of many in the administration, but are ready to “pounce” if it goes too far in applying a double standard in its dealings with Arafat.
The volatile situation in the Middle East has complicated conference planning. Sharon will now address the group via live satellite hookup. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will attend; former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s new roving emissary as well as biggest political competitor, was listed as a possibility.
AIPAC leaders are also hoping Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will keynote the Monday banquet, an event that traditionally attracts throngs of lawmakers, administration officials and diplomats.
Participants will get a somewhat more dovish perspective from Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The AIPACers will also honor Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former president of the American Red Cross, whose recent departure from the agency was related to her work on behalf of international recognition of Israel’s Magen David Adom.
AIPAC policy conferences since the 1993 Oslo agreement have often featured intense behind-the-scenes wrangling over the lobbying giant’s position on the peace process. In particular, dovish and hawkish forces on the group’s executive committee have frequently duked it out over relatively minor changes in the group’s action agenda — a document that outlines the group’s priorities for the upcoming year.
Fans of these political pugilistics may be disappointed this year, however. Most doves are in hiding or have joined the ranks of the hard-liners, and the proposed action agenda generally reflects views that cut across old ideological lines in the Jewish community.
“There’s a real ‘circle the wagons’ feeling this year,” said a Jewish activist who in the past has tried to push AIPAC to the left. “As a practical matter, this is just not a good year to be pushing these issues with AIPAC.”
Included on the group’s proposed list of priorities: “supporting the right of Israel to defend its citizens from terrorism, as the U.S. has done since Sept. 11” and “ensuring that relations between the United States and the Palestinians are conditional upon sustained PA and PLO compliance with commitments made to Israel and the United States.”
As usual, the draft supports “the president’s inclusion of Iran as a major national security threat to the U.S.” and Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”
The draft document repeats the group’s demand that the administration move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “without delay.” And AIPAC officials promise a new initiative on foreign aid.
The one major challenge to the draft agenda will come from the right. As usual, the Zionist Organization of America will attempt to toughen the language of several resolutions. ZOA president Morton Klein also said he will push a resolution recognizing the right of Jews to live in “Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights.”
Members of Congress are getting fed up with Saudi Arabia, but aside from some major huffing and puffing there’s little stomach on Capitol Hill for an all-out fight with America’s top Persian Gulf ally.
Reps. Ben Gilman (R-Rockland) and Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) circulated a letter last week to colleagues expressing outrage that Saudi Arabia “has joined Iraq in handing out money to the families of suicide murderers.” The informational letter came after press reports that a quasi-official Saudi group was distributing more than $5,000 to families of Palestinian “martyrs” — including suicide bombers.
Also this week, the Saudi ambassador to England published a poem praising suicide bombers and complaining about a White House “whose heart is filled with darkness.”
The lawmakers demanded that the administration “re-examine its relationship with Riyadh.” But congressional observers say there’s little likelihood of more substantive action against the Riyadh regime, despite the growing feeling of revulsion over its efforts to encourage terrorist groups.
“There is a swelling sense that Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “On the contrary, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
But Congress has little leverage, he said, and little desire for a genuine confrontation.
“What can Congress do?” Hordes asks. “Saudi Arabia buys our weapons. I don’t see the arms industry or the administration willing to cut back.”
And there’s the question of Saudi oil exports, an increasingly sensitive issue now that some Arab and Islamic countries are suggesting a new oil boycott to punish Washington for its support of Israel.
Bottom line: Expect lots of congressional indignation on the issue but little in the way of substance.
Also this week, Engel will propose legislation tightening sanctions on Syria unless the president can certify that it ends its support for terrorism, its violation of Iraq oil sanctions, the occupation of Lebanon and the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Reps In Hot Water
It’s no secret that support for Israel is at record levels in Congress these days, with anti-Israel voices hard to find. And two of the small handful of hostile House members are again in hot water.
Last week Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was convicted on 10 counts of fraud, bribery and racketeering. Despite the conviction, Traficant said he will run for re-election this year.
But that could prove difficult. In addition to his conviction and the possibility of up to 63 years in prison, Traficant faces a redistricting plan that has essentially eliminated his district.
He represented himself in the trial, despite the fact that he is not a lawyer. His courtroom antics angered the judge and apparently did nothing to impress the jury.
Traficant, who represents a working-class district in the Youngstown area, has been a persistent and sometimes harsh critic of Israel. The pugnacious lawmaker was also a fierce critic of the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit, and its prosecution of John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland autoworker accused of being a notorious guard at the Treblinka death camp.
A prominent Jewish Democrat said “it’s probably the end of the road for Traficant — but with this guy, you never know for sure.”
Another lawmaker who has frequently incensed pro-Israel forces is facing a new controversy.
Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.), speaking on a California radio talk show, expressed the view that the Bush White House knew about the Sept. 11 terror attacks in advance but did nothing to stop them.
“We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on Sept. 11th. What did this administration know, and when did it know it, about the events of Sept. 11th?” she asked. “Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?”
Last week Democratic leaders were busy distancing themselves from the controversial, unpredictable McKinney. After last year’s terror attacks, McKinney apologized to a Saudi prince whose $10 million donation to help victims of the attacks was spurned by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The prince had suggested U.S. policy was in part to blame for the terror attacks.
In a fund-raising letter last year, McKinney bragged of her “perfect scorecard” in ratings by a vehemently anti-Israel publication, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. n