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.