Jockeying for Position

The luncheon menu reflected the confusion this week at the Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group better known as AIPAC. The main course was hummus, falafel and baba ganoush, a Mediterranean medley that seemed to symbolize Israel’s integration into a New Middle East. Dessert, however, was hamantaschen — the Purim pastry that recalls Israel’s eternal battles against sworn enemies.

AIPAC holds a national conference in Washington every spring to flex its muscles and trumpet its closeness to the Israeli government. This year, it had the misfortune of scheduling the meeting for the very week when, as it happened, Israel wouldn’t have a government to speak of. The old government had just been defeated. The new one hadn’t been installed. Coalition negotiations were hot and heavy, and no Israeli politicians wanted to be away. And, so, instead of hearing at lunch from the two leading Knesset members invited to discuss the recent elections, delegates got to watch three Israeli spinmeisters blather via satellite. The hall was half-empty. Or half-full.

Ehud Barak’s unexpectedly decisive victory over Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have just about everyone disoriented and groping. Some folks are scared stiff and shouldn’t be. Others are floating on air when they should be sweating. Everywhere you go, people say they’re delighted. Suddenly, it turns out nobody liked Netanyahu very much. They just hid it well.

At the watering holes where the East Coast Jewish power elite gathers to meet and greet, there’s more jockeying for position these days than at the Kentucky Derby. Last Sunday, 500 guests turned up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to toast Jordan’s young King Abdullah, at a reception hosted by Slimfast mogul S. Daniel Abraham and his dovish Center for Middle East Peace. A week earlier, barely 150 RSVP’s had come in. Once Israel’s ballots were counted, the guest list ballooned, as Likud supporters scrambled to be seen as friends of peace.

In conversations among Jewish liberals, the mood is one of giddy elation, but it’s often laced with anxiety. As Barak’s coalition plans unfold, reports from Israel suggest he intends to form a broad coalition with either Likud or Shas, the Sephardic fervently Orthodox party. Shas would support the peace process, but block progress toward religious freedom and pluralism. The Likud is far more open to civil liberties and pluralism, but might slow peace talks to a crawl. Suddenly, Peace Now types are eyeing Reform rabbis suspiciously, wondering who’s going to lose out to whom as they wait for Barak to make his move.

If most Reform rabbis aren’t eyeballing back, it’s only because most of them don’t yet know what’s going to hit them. Almost unanimously this week, Reform leaders were confidently citing Barak’s frequent statements in favor of religious freedom and pluralism as evidence that he would fight their fight.

That’s not how it looks to Israelis. “I’m extremely happy with his election, but I would be very surprised if he pushes pluralism,” said Rabbi Naamah Kelman, a Reform Jewish educator in Jerusalem. “It just isn’t a consensus position in Israel.”

“Barak is committed to religious freedom,” said a Barak aide, “but that’s not the same thing as what Americans mean by religious pluralism. He’s going to fight for issues that affect Israelis. Whether Reform rabbis can perform conversions affects people in Cleveland. I don’t think most Americans understand that.”

On Capitol Hill, where Netanyahu used to be greeted with cheers, “people are very positive” about Barak’s election, says Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Jewish Democrat from Florida. “The prime minister-elect has said all the right things, from the moment he was elected. It’s a very exciting time.”

Of course, you might say it’s easy for a Democrat to embrace the leader of a peace-and-social-democracy party. But what do Republicans make of him?

Why, no problem. “I don’t think there will be any difference in support for Israel,” says Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. “I’ve been in Congress 18 years, and I’ve supported Israel right along regardless of the administration over there. We want to do what’s right.”

In fact, it now appears nobody in either party ever liked Netanyahu that much. “The majority of Republicans want to see the peace process move forward,” says Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who’s a leader of pro-Israel legislative activity. “Nobody in Congress was ideologically committed to the Likud approach except Newt Gingrich, and he’s gone.”

Well, not entirely gone. Gingrich was a featured speaker at this year’s AIPAC conference. He delivered an inspirational talk to a private gathering of the lobby’s biggest donors. His message was the same one he’s delivered at AIPAC gatherings for years, usually to wild applause: that the world is “still a dangerous place” and the good guys should never let their guard down. Which is, come to think of it, Netanyahu’s message.

The lobby claims to be nonpartisan when it comes to Israeli politics. AIPAC leaders say they’re insulted by the charges from Barak aides that they’re “biased” in favor of Likud. “There’s just so much misinformation,” said AIPAC executive committee member Bernice Manocherian of New York. “We support the U.S.-Israel relationship, no matter who is in power.”

If AIPAC folks sound particularly touchy on the subject, it’s because their relationship with Israel’s new government is off to a bad start. Aides to Barak have let it be known that the prime minister-elect considers the lobby “biased” toward Likud. Others have said it before. But now it’s coming from Israel’s incoming prime minister. AIPAC needs the Israeli government behind it. That’s the whole point of being AIPAC.

Barak’s refusal to appear before the conference — even via satellite, even for a five-minute taped message — was a stinging rebuke. In the end, AIPACers took some comfort in a warm, last-minute letter from Barak that was read to the delegates, saying he looked forward to “enhancing the cooperation with you and with the entire American Jewish community.”

Barak’s aides warn against reading too much into the flap. The snub was intentional, and Barak does consider AIPAC biased. But now that he’s made his point, he has no intention of carrying a grudge into office. He’s convinced that he can work fine with AIPAC. His tent is a big tent.

Big enough for everyone he thinks he needs, anyway..

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.