How do you support Israel’s official policy when it changes from week to week? That’s a question facing the record number of pro-Israel activists heading to Washington for the May 15-18 annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby.
Plans to make Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip the centerpiece of this year’s conference collapsed when Sharon’s Likud Party rejected the plan in a May 2 referendum, several AIPAC executive committee members said.
By Monday, AIPAC still was trying to come up with a formulation to frame its most important lobbying issue: Israel’s peace and security.
"AIPAC continues to work closely with members of Congress who are anxious to find a way to express their support for the principles President Bush laid out on April 14," said a statement distributed by AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.
April 14 was the day Bush endorsed Sharon’s plan, which called for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and some settlements in the West Bank. He also endorsed some Israeli land claims in the West Bank and rejected the Palestinian demand that refugees and their descendants be granted a "right of return" to Israel.
The election year timing makes the lack of a central issue especially acute because lawmakers often are more receptive to lobbying in an election year.
But AIPAC did not seem overly concerned by the lack of a central issue. Officials said the fact that 6,000 activists were due to converge on Washington in an election year, and at a time the Israeli and U.S. governments were seeking a way out of the peace impasse, sent its own message.
"These are historic and exciting times for Israel and the United States, and the exceptionally large turnout at this year’s policy conference demonstrates the strong level of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.
Anticipated attendance is 20 percent greater than last year and has tripled since 2001, which AIPAC officials attribute to aggressive outreach. Organizers are moving the conference from a hotel that long has hosted the event to the mammoth new Washington Convention Center.
"The mood will be very positive," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a member of AIPAC’s executive committee.
The flux in Israel’s peace policy is hardly a catastrophe for the group: The activists have a menu of issues to discuss when they descend on Washington.
"We have a whole array of matters before Congress that I think will keep people more than busy," Hoenlein said.
Among the issues:
A bill that urges Iran to open up its nuclear weapons development programs to inspectors, and likewise urges U.S. allies to impose sanctions until Iran does so. The bill passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly last week and is now before the Senate.
The foreign aid package, including continuing assistance to Israel, and to Jordan and Egypt for complying with their peace agreements with Israel. Congress cut aid slightly this fiscal year to help pay for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Several legislative initiatives to monitor the surge of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Activists also will be encouraged to discuss a range of topics that are not necessarily on the immediate legislative agenda but that serve to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. They include homeland security cooperation between the two nations, the isolation of Syria and support for Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
Nonetheless, the failure of Sharon to win the party referendum on his withdrawal plan is likely to haunt the conference. Sharon has said he will prepare a new plan in coming weeks, but it’s uncertain when or what it will contain.
It’s also not yet clear whether Bush, whose endorsement of the plan was widely praised in the Jewish community but lost him precious political capital in the Arab world, would address the AIPAC conference.
Sharon canceled his own scheduled appearance at AIPAC, citing the need to come up with a plan acceptable both to his Cabinet and to the United States.
The proxies Sharon is sending in his stead appear to underscore his commitment to the original plan: Ehud Olmert, the Cabinet minister and deputy prime minister; Meir Sheetrit, a minister without portfolio; and Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the justice minister, are among the plan’s most avid advocates in the Cabinet.
Even so, the messages from Sharon’s team have been confusing since Likud rejected his plan.
Sharon’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, told a Washington audience last week that a withdrawal from Gaza now looks unlikely.
"No one knows now what are the chances this plan will be implemented in the future," Eiland told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on May 7, after saying he had thrown away his prepared speech on the plan.
A day earlier, Sharon was telling European officials that he was "determined to move the plan forward as is, without changing the main points."
To make matters more confusing, Israeli officials were leaking a much more ambitious — and radically different — plan that Eiland showed to his U.S. counterparts just weeks ago. It would swap huge swaths of land between Egypt, Israel and a Palestinian entity in order to create a larger and more livable Gaza Strip. Additionally, Egypt would assume custodianship of Gaza, and Jordan would do the same in the West Bank.
It was a measure of the lack of direction in Sharon’s office that the land-swap plan bobbed up in Israeli media and in U.S. think-tank circles even after Bush administration officials rejected it out of hand as hopelessly quixotic.