October 22, 2018

AIPAC 2018: No News is Good News?

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, U.S., March 26. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS.

1.

This was the least eventful AIPAC conference I remember, and I’ve been to many AIPAC conferences. It looked uneventful almost by design. The US President, a man of many talents – among which the talent to make headlines – did not attend. His VP visited Israel not long ago and had nothing much to add. Nikki Haley is a rock star, but let’s be honest: vilifying the UN at Aipac is an easy job. And then there is Prime Minister Netanyahu. He made headlines, but not here in Washington. If Israel goes to election soon, if Netanyahu is going to be indicted soon, these will all be post-Aipac events.

2.

So, no major headlines were coming out of Aipac – is that good or bad?

On the one hand, it could reinforce the notion, shared by even some of the participants, that Aipac’s stage is not as important as it used to be in years past.

On the other hand, it could reinforce the message that Aipac clearly aimed to send this year: we are truly bipartisan, we are truly a place where a discussion can take place among people who have different views and still share a goal, or a love of Israel.

An uneventful political event in Trump’s America. Maybe that’s the headline. Maybe that’s what makes it unique.

3.

From several conversations I had, I get the impression that the appeal to progressives in this conference was quite successful. It felt like a real attempt at inclusion, and at least some of the progressive participants were convinced that Aipac is genuine in trying to send a message of a broad tent. Of course, such message has benefit and a cost. It might result in a toning down, or even a watering down, the way Aipac deals with policy and legislation. It might result in enlarging the camp of people that are willing to identify with the organization and its goals.

4.

The appeal to progressives also impacts the relations with Israel – and its quite conservative ruling coalition. Expressing fervent support for a two state solution is essential as you appeal to American progressives. But it will make certain Israelis wonder about Aipac’s priorities: Is it to support Israel, or to appeal to Americans who find it difficult to support Israel? For the time being, this question is not an urgent one, because no major conflict concerning negotiations with the Palestinians is on the horizon. But it still has the potential to become a thorny complication is Aipac’s way forward.

5.

Earlier this week I wrote (in JJ’s Daily Roundtable – I assume you already subscribed to it) that in addition to the obvious reasons – Iran, Palestinians, Syria and Russia – Netanyahu came to Washington carrying two messages to his domestic audience. These messages are linked but are not exactly the same.

One – I am still functioning, and not too distracted by the ongoing investigations to be effective as a leader.

Two – I am indispensable. No Israeli has such standings in America and the world, no one can replace me and have similar success.

Did he succeed in carrying this message? I’d argue that he was upstaged by well timed events at home: a political crisis that could end his term, and the signing of yet another state witness against him. Since his meeting with Trump, and his Aipac speech did not result in a dramatic headline – his trip was not a huge domestic success.

6.

I also wrote that yes, there’s a political angle, as we all understand, but that gossipy cynicism aside, Netanyahu’s plate of issues for this visit includes more than just domestic considerations. If a decision on the Iran nuclear agreement is about to take place, it better be coordinated. If a policy on the future of Syria is something the US is mulling, Israel’s input must be taken into account.

Two days ago, the NYT describes an “American strategic void” in response to Russia’s recent moves. This void worries Israel, and can be of great consequence for its security. Thus, the challenge for Netanyahu was a tricky one: to alert Trump to the need for a more robust US policy, without being seen as too critical or too pushy, as not to disrupt the good rapport between these two leaders.

7.

Were you listening to PM Netanyahu’s speech? It was the sunniest I remember him ever giving. It this Bibi? Or maybe Shimon Peres’s ghost just came back to haunt us? The threats took a backseat to the opportunities. The bad news – there were bad news – took a backseat to the good news. I wonder if this was Bibi’s way to accommodate Aipac’s message to the delegates – or maybe his way to surprise, to keep the delegates awake – what the routine speech on the threat of Iran can no longer do.

One way or the other, it was a change for the better.

A note to readers: I was invited to speak at Aipac’s 2018 policy conference, and was happy to accept the invitation. My travel expenses were paid by the organization.

Ecumenical rather than sectional

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the beautiful new memorial for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. displays a host of inspiring lessons that were taught by the great civil rights leader.  Among them are these words, spoken by Dr. King in Atlanta on his final Christmas in 1967:  “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

As a rabbi, I am proud to be the inheritor and guardian of a religious tradition that is founded upon the “ecumenical rather than sectional” loyalties that Dr. King modeled for us all.  Our Torah teaches no less than thirty-six times that we are commanded to love the stranger – the one who is not of our tribe.

Just a few miles from Dr. King’s memorial, the AIPAC Policy Conference convened this past week and was broadcast live by all of America’s major news networks and more expansively throughout the world.

I am deeply troubled by the multiple standing ovations that were afforded this past Monday evening to a man whose words, actions, and values are so regularly at odds with the peace-directed ideals of our Jewish tradition and our country – ideals elevated by Dr. King and so many of our nation’s greatest visionaries.

It’s one thing to be polite. Derekh eretz (the Jewish discipline of interpersonal decency) is an important value, and it is proper and fitting to greet a guest – even one with whom you might disagree – politely.  But politeness does not demand cheering from a Jewish audience for a person who eschews the very “world perspective” that Dr. King prayed might characterize our nation.

The celebration of a person who tramples so many of our Jewish values simply because he spoke in support of one of them caused a lie about Jews to be broadcast to the world.  This is an embarrassing failure on the part of the Jews in the convention hall on Monday night.

I am about to send my eldest child to college, where life is already hard enough for pro-Israel Jews.  We can be sure that it just got harder, with the world looking on as the worst anti-Semitic sentiments – that Jews have way more power than they deserve… that Jews trade away their other “purported” global ethical values in favor of whatever is good for themselves… that Jews are loyal only to Israel/themselves, not the countries in which they live – seemed to be playing out before their eyes.

Particularly in a presidential election year, the AIPAC Policy Conference is not just another platform for the internecine American Jewish debate about Israel.  The entire world watches this one Jewish event – and only this one Jewish event.  We can only assume that many millions of non-Jews were reaching their conclusions about who the Jews are and what they stand for on Monday night.

Lest anyone who tuned in to the convention come away with the false impression that Jewish self-concern can ever be embraced at the expense of our religious tradition’s other fundamental values, I wish to be perfectly clear.

The Jewish people’s loyalties “transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”

The Jewish people celebrates the Torah’s command to love more than just ourselves.

The Jewish people of America love our country and are determined to join with Americans of all faiths to uphold the soul of this nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

This is not a political matter.  It is blind to partisanship and party allegiances.  Whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, America’s Jews are devoted to our “ecumenical rather than sectional” loyalties, and we always will be.

Make no mistake – I love and support the land, people and state of Israel.  I believe in the legitimacy and importance of a safe and secure Israel, and I will never stop working for the day when Israel will live in peace with all of its neighbors.  But we, the Jewish people, do not need nor wish to check all of our other sacred religious values at the door in service of this one commitment, no matter how important it is to us.  To do so is to debase our own Jewish heritage.  To do so when the world is watching us so closely is to debase ourselves.

AIPAC makes its voice heard in Washington

It was a surprisingly sunny day Tuesday, ahead of an expected snowstorm, when the 12,000 or so AIPAC delegates concluded the three-day annual “policy conference” in Washington this week, ready to move on to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives. They had been fully primed for a show of political muscle by an organization that never knows a dull moment, and isn’t likely to any time soon, given the coming years of Middle East turmoil. Israel is a tough client to worry about, and the region is a tough region to worry about, and the world has had an annoying tendency to misunderstand the issues. “If Israel ceases to exist,” one attendee sarcastically asked his friend between sessions at the conference, “would Europe still call it an apartheid state?”

This year’s AIPAC conference was bizarrely quiet. In the rooms where the panels of experts and officials were speaking, there was mostly doom and gloom — talk about the war in Syria that isn’t nearly over, about instability in Egypt, about the slim chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace and, of course, about Iran. Iran is surging, and the diplomatic talks, thus far, only serve Iran “to buy time to press ahead” with its program, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the gathering via satellite. Israel isn’t going to sit idly by while the Iranians complete their mission, was Netanyahu’s and outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s message.

“We mean it, we mean it,” Barak said — namely, our threats aren’t empty threats; our warnings should be taken seriously. In the delicate dance of Israeli and U.S. officials around the Iranian issue, there were two main messages: The Israelis asking for “credible threat” — while hinting that the current threat might not be credible enough to make Iran cave. The Americans are asking for trust — the president, Vice President Joe Biden told the group, “is not bluffing.”

Thus, when the delegates were visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday, one law that they asked Congress to quickly pass was the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act — which promises to toughen the sanctions on the regime by, among other things, blacklisting all companies controlled by the Iranian government. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the bill’s two authors (his counterpart is Republican Ed Royce from California, chairman of the committee), told me Monday that it’s time for Iran to realize that the “West means business.” More precisely, he also seems to accept Israel’s premise that current measures fall short of being persuasive.

Congressman Engel said that, thus far, he has not gotten any indication that the Obama administration opposes the new sanctions bill. He says he expects President Barack Obama to sign the bill, if and when it passes the two houses of Congress. I tried to tease him by asking how Chuck Hagel, the incoming secretary of defense, would have voted had he still been a senator. Hagel used to oppose such bills — one reason pro-Israel activists were worried about his appointment to be the new leader of defense. But Engel, an early and somewhat lonely critic of Hagel among the Democrats (Hagel has an “endemic hostility toward Israel,” Engel said) wouldn’t be teased. The president is going to set the agenda, he said. The Hagel battle is over.

Hagel was a main topic of hallway conversations at the conference, as delegates debated AIPAC’s decision to steer clear of that battle, contending that the organization doesn’t take positions on presidential nominations. Some see that as no more than an excuse for not engaging in a battle that AIPAC couldn’t win; others went further, admitting defeat — but most delegates I spoke to seemed to accept the explanation and are already moving on to worry about other things.

They still don’t like Hagel and cheered enthusiastically when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking Monday morning, said that the United States needs “a national security team that is pro-Israel.” But they also seemed to understand why Defense Minister Barak, speaking Sunday, had only nice things to say about Hagel, who, he said, “will no doubt serve his county with the same pride and honor with which he served both on the battlefield and in Congress.” Barak is a representative of a pragmatic country, and Israel has to keep working with Hagel. AIPAC is a pragmatic organization and wants to keep pushing its agenda without wasting time on Washington skirmishes of yesterday.

Besides, there’s a presidential visit to Israel coming soon, if Netanyahu can put a coalition together in time, and both the Obama administration and the Israeli government are doing their utmost not to interfere with the newfound good spirit that is the pretext for this visit. AIPAC’s contribution was to have a conference in which nothing dramatic happens, nothing that might upstage the visit. A conference that is barely newsworthy. Smooth and dynamic and very well organized, as usual, but no more than that. It is probably better that way, both for U.S.-Israel “relations” and for AIPAC as well. One can’t up the ante of expectations every time, and this year provided AIPAC with a blessed opportunity to somewhat tone down the conference. It wisely chose to take it.

Obama is going to Israel to have “nice pictures,” and so that he’ll be able to say that he was there, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California told me. He expects that the president will make speeches in which he will highlight the “pro-Israel positions” we’ve heard from him in the past.

Biden told the delegates that Obama is looking forward to meeting with young Israelis. He also expects a visit heavy on public diplomacy and lighter on policy. To what end does the president want to meet with young Israelis, to what end does he want to amend his relations with the “people”? Now that’s an interesting question to think about.

No Obama or Bibi, but AIPAC conf. still looking to make noise

Next week’s annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington may be as notable for what — and who — is missing as what’s planned.

For the first time in at least seven years, neither the U.S. president nor the Israeli prime minister will attend. In addition, for the second year in a row, no mention of the Palestinians, negative or positive, appears on the conference’s legislative agenda.

Instead, the agenda will focus on the Congress enacting legislation that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally” of the United States — a relationship not enjoyed by any other nation — and on facilitating a U.S. green light should Israel decide to strike Iran. Should the measures being considered by the Senate and the House of Representatives pass, it would constitute the most explicit congressional sanction for military action against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

An official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity said the thinking behind this year’s theme is the twin urgencies of what appears to be an accelerated Iranian nuclear program and turbulence in Syria and Egypt, both Israel’s neighbors. The official also said AIPAC remains as committed as ever to advancing the two-state solution and noted that the peace process did not feature on the legislative agenda of last year's conference, either.

Both emphases dovetail with recent signals from the Israeli government that talks with the Palestinians are not going anywhere soon, and that Iran is the largest looming threat in the region.

The absence of both President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be due to external circumstances more than anything else.

Obama will be visiting Israel just two weeks after the conference — his first visit to the Jewish state as president — obviating the need for the president to deliver another Israel policy speech at AIPAC. In his stead, the administration is sending Vice President Joe Biden, who will address the conference on Monday morning. Obama has been at four of the last six AIPAC conferences.

For his part, Netanyahu is still trying to cobble together a coalition government following Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, in which the prime minister’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction was weakened. Netanyahu will deliver a video message to AIPAC; Ehud Barak, Israel's outgoing defense minister, will address the conference in person.

Democratic and Republican leaders in both houses of Congress also will address AIPAC.

Despite the absences, AIPAC expects 13,000 activists, including 2,000 students, to attend the conference — a number commensurate with last year's record-breaker. AIPAC officials say the number is more remarkable in 2013 because it’s not an election year.

The AIPAC official interviewed by JTA said that part of what motivates the push to name Israel a major strategic ally is an appeal to maintain defense assistance funding, averaging more than $3 billion annually, at a time when both parties are seeking ways to drastically cut spending.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote congressional appropriators last week to warn that across-the-board “sequestration” cuts due to kick in Friday — unless the White House and Congress achieve a compromise — will hit Israel funding, among other things.

“This is no time to cut aid to an ally,” the AIPAC official said. Conferring major strategic ally upon Israel “would mean that the United States and Israel would work together on a cooperative basis on missile defense, homeland security, energy independence, medical research and innovation and military technology,” the official said.

The push to name Israel a major strategic ally comports with a longstanding preference among some leading Republicans to tweak apart assistance for Israel from other foreign aid, which the conservative wing of the party advocates slashing.

The overriding consideration in such a designation, however, was Israel’s increasingly close security ties with the United States, in the Middle East and across the globe, where the two nations have collaborated on cyber-security issues, the AIPAC official said. The major strategic ally legislation will be introduced in the House and Senate in the coming days.

Separately, a nonbinding resolution that would call on the president to support Israel “if it is compelled to act against the Iranian nuclear threat” will be introduced in the Senate. The House will consider legislation that would authorize the president to sanction any entity that trades with Iran.

The conference schedule heavily emphasizes the Iranian threat, Middle East turmoil and the perceived need to intensify further the U.S.-Israel security alliance. There are a few sessions dealing with the Palestinian issue — some with a pronounced skeptical tone when it comes to the peace process.

“Why, despite persistent efforts and an acknowledgment of the general outline for such an agreement, have the parties failed to attain a negotiated peace?” reads the promotional material for one session.

This year’s “AIPAC action principles,” to be considered by the array of American Jewish groups that makes up AIPAC’s executive committee, mention the Palestinians only in the context of keeping them from advancing toward statehood outside the confines of negotiations but do not explicitly endorse the two-state solution. Most of the principles address the security relationship, as they did last year.

Missing also, however, from the AIPAC legislative agenda is any effort to limit U.S. funding of the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC had pushed such efforts in December, after the U.N. General Assembly vote in which the Palestinians gained boosted recognition as a non-member state, but they fell by the wayside in part because of mixed signals from the Israeli government.

The conference runs March 3-5, ending with the annual AIPAC lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill next Tuesday.

L.A. contingent has plenty to say at AIPAC Policy Conference

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, it became clear why more than 13,000 Americans — most though not all of them Jews, and nearly 1,700 of them from Los Angeles — had come to attend the organization’s three-day conference. Although they would hear essentially the same pro-Israel messaging as in past years, one topic in particular was regarded with new exigency.

“Iran, Iran, Iran,” first-time attendee Jonathan Baruch, a founding partner of Rain Management Group, said, in describing the crux of this year’s conference. For AIPAC veterans, the laser-like focus on Iranian nuclear proliferation probably wasn’t a surprise, as the organization has been pressing the issue for more than a decade. But the urgency of the cry to confront Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons has reached fever pitch in recent months, as Israeli officials warn of an impending “point of no return,” saying soon will come a day when destroying the Iranian program could become impossible.

“I’d like to talk to you about a subject no one’s been talking about lately,” Netanyahu joked to a standing-room-only crowd of Israel supporters at the Washington Convention Center. Just hours after a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama, the prime minister was unequivocal: “The Jewish state will not allow those that seek our destruction the means to achieve that goal,” he said, laying the foundation for what sounded like the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “As prime minister, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

That, too, seemed to be the message that this conference, the largest-ever assemblage of pro-Israel advocates, was aiming at U.S. policy makers. For a lobbying organization whose numbers are its most valuable asset — volume, after all, equals votes — AIPAC owes much to its Pacific Southwest Region, and especially to Los Angeles, which comprised the second largest regional delegation in the country, trailing only New York. Leading the L.A. charge was Sinai Temple in Westwood, whose 285 attendees made up the largest synagogue contingent in the country, though L.A.’s Valley Beth Shalom, Beth Jacob Congregation, Young Israel of Century City, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Am also were all well represented.

“This conference is like Yerushalayim,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led one of the largest L.A. delegations for the fourth consecutive year. “If you sit here long enough, you’ll meet every Jew in the world.”

The impulse to compare the scene at AIPAC with the capital of Israel may sound like hyperbole, but it is, in fact, another reason why the Iranian threat loomed large: A danger to Israel is a danger to all Jews. The urgency of the Iran issue is what compelled many of the West Coast residents to travel more than 2,000 miles to hear, in person, President Obama address one of the most powerful and privileged voting constituencies in the nation. This is an election year, after all.

“This convention is unusual, because there’s a meeting going on right now between Netanyahu and the president, and the entire convention is aimed at that meeting,” Feinstein said, sitting in an enormous lounge at the AIPAC Village, where conference attendees mill about between sessions, eating, drinking and kibitzing. “The purpose of this conference is to change the atmosphere in which that meeting is taking place. People are here to tell the president to take great care in that meeting, so it gives the conference the sense of an impending historic decision.”

Feinstein said the conference offers an opportunity to exercise personal political will and engage in politics in a way not often experienced by Hollywood-dominated Los Angeles:  “There is a sense, particularly for those living in California, that there are events transpiring, and we can’t do anything about it. People call me all the time, saying, ‘I’m reading the paper — what can I do?’ I direct them here.”

Daniel Gryczman, 37, a real estate developer who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is a member of Temple Beth Am, is a longtime AIPAC supporter. A member of its national council, congressional club (requiring a $3,600 annual donation) and new leadership network (a $10,000 commitment to pro-Israel politics outside of AIPAC each political cycle), Gryczman considers the conference’s exponential growth staggering. “Twelve years ago, this thing was at the Washington Hilton with 800 people,” Gryczman said. But he understands the attraction. “One person can actually make a difference,” Gryczman said. “Each member of Congress has a vote, and I do, too. And I can influence that vote and impact the U.S.- Israel relationship — which is probably the most powerful thing I’ve done. For me, this is the end-all, be-all.”

Actress, onetime supermodel, and design and marketing firm CEO Kathy Ireland called herself “a very proud pro-Israel American” during a speech at one session. The Los Angeles resident first visited Israel because of her Christian faith, but soon discovered shared values between the Holy Land and her own homeland. “I see in Israel what I see in our country,” she said: “The unrelenting pursuit of justice.” Ireland offered AIPAC’s answer for why non-Jews should care about Israel, delivering an impassioned speech about Israel’s wish for peace and the dangers posed by its “oil-rich neighbors.” 

For some, the oft-repeated tropes about a conflict-laden Israel in peril can seem a little dull.

“I think people are just nervous. What we’re so consumed with here,” Baruch said, pulling out his iPhone. “I just got an e-mail from a friend in Israel, and it was very funny — it was, like, ‘Oy vey, the Americans! There they go again. Boring.’ ”

“None of this is earth shattering,” Ron Alberts, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, said. “When you do follow [the U.S.-Israel relationship] closely, you see the nuances a little better, but the overall message isn’t as exciting, because you know the message.” Still, veterans contend that much of the value of attending Policy Conference is in simply showing up.

“I don’t come because I find it so interesting,” Gryczman said. “I come because it’s about what we’re doing. And if we don’t come, we’re not doing the work we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not about receiving; it’s about giving.”

Mark Rohatiner, a member of Beth Jacob’s delegation, said he finds the repetition both comforting and inspirational. After Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, delivered a conference address last year, Rohatiner’s 22-year-old daughter left NYU graduate school to make aliyah. “I jokingly told Elliot Brandt [AIPAC’s Pacific Northwest Regional Director], you saved me 50 grand,” Rohatiner said, adding, “Now I have to increase my contribution to AIPAC.”

Some Angelenos used the conference to explore the unpredictable San Fernando Valley congressional race between veteran Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish Democrats who, because of redistricting, find themselves competing for the same seat. Following a breakout session in which Berman spoke on a panel about Iran, Sherman Oaks resident Megan Schnaid said she was convinced of Berman’s edge over his opponent.

“In my district, he’s commonly referred to as the Godfather,” said Schnaid, an executive with the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. “What I like is that he has a good policy balance vbetween the local and the foreign. He understands the big picture,” she said, adding that locally Berman’s policy has made an impact. “I live in the Valley, and I drive over the hill every day, and he’s been instrumental in the expansion of the 405 [Freeway].”

Shai Kolodaro, another Sherman Oaks resident, had the opposite reaction to Berman’s panel. “After I heard him just now, I didn’t like his approach. His approach is too Obama-ish. Sherman has a harsher, more realistic approach,” she said.

Berman was among the many Angelenos expressing pride — and a touch of competitiveness — over L.A.’s large conference presence.

“Why don’t we have more people than New York?” he asked.

Maybe next year?

Note to AIPAC: ‘Road Map’ Is Alive

The Bush administration is calling out the heavy hitters to
convince the American Jewish community that it won’t ignore Israel’s concerns
as it mounts a renewed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

Five Bush administration officials addressed the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference this week,
including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice. 

Some Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish leaders have worried
that the Bush administration will pressure Israel to make concessions to the
Palestinians in order to shore up international support for its war against Iraq
or to “pay back” Arab states that have supported, or at least tolerated, the
war. At issue is whether both Israel and the Palestinians are expected to move
forward simultaneously — or whether Israel will be pressed to make concessions
only after the Palestinians have shown that they are serious about ending
terrorism and moving toward peace. 

In a landmark policy speech on June 24, 2002, President Bush
expressed support for a future Palestinian state — but only after an end to
violence against Israel, a change in Palestinian leadership and significant
reforms in Palestinian governance. In contrast, America’s partners in the diplomatic
Quartet that authored the “road map” toward peace — the United Nations,
European Union and Russia –  expect both sides to make simultaneous
concessions. Current drafts of the plan envision a simultaneous process. 

The goal of the speakers at the AIPAC conference was to show
that the administration stands behind Bush’s original vision, and they
repeatedly invoked the June 24 speech.

“The road map is not an edict, it is not a treaty,” Powell
told the conference on Sunday, which drew some 5,000 activists from around the
country. “It is a statement of the broad steps we believe Israel and the
Palestinians must take to achieve President Bush’s vision of hope and the dream
that we all have for peace.” 

However, both Powell and Rice stressed that while the
administration welcomed Israel’s comments on the plan, it would not countenance
major changes. 

Though Bush is very popular among supporters of Israel, some
prominent Jewish organizational officials said they left the sessions concerned
about where the administration was headed. And AIPAC is leaving nothing to
chance: The group is lobbying Congress to pressure the White House to stick to
the June 24 parameters. 

The administration has been sending mixed signals on the
issue in recent weeks. Acknowledging that the road map was controversial in the
Jewish community, Rice told AIPAC participants Monday that the White House
“welcomed comments” from Israel and the Palestinians, but she said that “it is
not a matter of renegotiating the road map,” according to Jewish officials at
the session, which was closed to the media.

The speakers also made clear that the administration would
demand that Israel ease restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population as
part of Israel’s anti-terror operations, and freeze all settlement construction
in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel and some of its American allies have been concerned
that the road map will deviate from the president’s vision, and that the plan —
which does not clearly demand an end to terror before negotiations began and
Israeli makes concessions — will be adopted by a U.S. government that seeks
European and Arab support for its policies elsewhere in the Middle East. Those
concerns were heightened last month, just days before U.S. forces attacked Iraq,
when Bush announced that he would distribute the road map to the Israelis and
Palestinians after the Palestinian Authority prime minister-designate, Mahmoud
Abbas, is confirmed with “real authority.” 

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has
major concerns about the road map, and has hoped to alter it.

The Palestinians, recognizing that the last draft of the
road map is more favorable to them than the Bush speech was, do not want to
allow changes. 

Both Powell and Rice quoted Bush’s call for Israel to freeze
all settlement building as the Palestinians make progress toward peace, an
ambiguous phrasing that the two sides may interpret differently. Israel hopes
to allow for “natural growth” of existing settlements, which critics say is a ploy
to continue building settlements. When Powell on Sunday called settlement
building “inconsistent with President Bush’s two-state vision,” he received
applause and a smattering of boos. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who also addressed
the conference Sunday night, met Monday with Powell, Rice and Vice President
Dick Cheney. Bush attended virtually the entire meeting with Rice, senior
Israeli officials said. Shalom’s meetings touched on U.S. military efforts in
western Iraq to ensure that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is not able to launch
missiles against Israel.

Though allied forces say they have had success in ensuring
that Iraq can’t attack Israel, Shalom said the Jewish State’s high alert will
remain in force for at least another week or two. The bulk of Shalom’s meetings
with U.S. officials apparently dealt with the road map, however. Shalom told
reporters Monday that there is a “great understanding” between Israel and the
United States on how to proceed on the Palestinian track, along the lines of
Bush’s June 24 speech. He dismissed questions suggesting that U.S. criticism of
Israeli settlements had grown unusually harsh. 

“If you check U.S. administrations in past decades, you’ll
find that their opposition to settlements was very similar,” Shalom said. The
current criticism “is not something that hasn’t been said in the past.” 

One Israeli official sought to square the circle by noting
that while the United States will demand Palestinian action first, the time
frame for Israel to respond with concessions of its own may be so compressed
that for all intents and purposes the two sides will be acting simultaneously. 

Meanwhile, AIPAC is working to shore up its position on
Capitol Hill. AIPAC delegates lobbied lawmakers to sign onto letters urging the
president to stick to the language of his speech and resist international
pressure to “short-circuit the process.” 

“The United States has developed a level of credibility and
trust with all parties in the region which no other country shares,” says the
House letter, which is sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the House majority
whip, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We are concerned that certain nations or
groups, if given a meaningful role in monitoring progress made on the ground,
might only lessen the chances of moving forward on a realistic path towards
peace.” 

Those sentiments were seconded Sunday night by Sen. Joseph
Lieberman (D-Conn.), who used a dessert reception to urge AIPAC supporters to
fight to minimize the role of America’s Quartet partners. 

In the Senate, a similar letter is being circulated by Sens.
Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Lawmakers will be hearing this week from many Jews who
support the letters. Such sentiments aren’t universal in the Jewish community,
however. Several Jewish groups say AIPAC is using a delaying tactic in hopes of
scuttling the road map altogether. These groups support the road map and want
it to be imposed immediately. 

“The approach AIPAC is supporting is an approach we’ve tried
for two years, and it has never worked,” said M.J. Rosenberg, policy director
of the Israel Policy Forum. “Anyone who wants the peace process to succeed is
supporting the road map.” 

Stressing its support for the road map in front of the AIPAC
audience showed how serious the Bush administration is taking the issue,
Rosenberg said. 

Israeli Labor Party legislator Colette Avital also said
AIPAC and Sharon would try to delay the road map. 

“They’re going to do everything in their power to postpone,
to change, to turn this plan into an entirely dead story,” said Avital, who
also spoke at the policy conference. “Many people in AIPAC have similar
attitudes to the prime minister.” 

Avital praised the road map, saying it puts the onus on the
Palestinians to reform before requiring Israeli concessions. 

“Israel and AIPAC want 120 percent performance,” she said,
“something which, even if the Palestinians want, they are incapable of.” 

AIPAC officials dismissed the criticism.      

“Those who suggest that AIPAC opposes the road map that
implements the vision laid out by President Bush on June 24 are wrong,” said
Rebecca Needler, AIPAC’s spokeswoman. 

She said that there are several interpretations of the road
map, and that AIPAC is pushing for the one that closely resembles Bush’s speech
and Sharon’s policy. 

In addition to the road map, AIPAC is pushing Congress to
pass a supplemental war spending bill that includes $1 billion in military aid
for Israel and $9 billion in loan guarantees. Support for the money is strong
on Capitol Hill, and AIPAC is working to ensure that the money is not made
contingent on Israeli actions such as a settlement freeze, as some Arab
American and dovish Jewish groups have called for. JTA Managing Editor Michael
Arnold contributed to this story.  

AIPAC Adapts

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, 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, one of the Monday night keynoters, got in a few partisan licks on the embassy issue.

“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.

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.

Going Their Ways

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, 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, one of the Monday night keynoters, got in a few partisan licks on the embassy issue.

“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.