News Analysis: Top pro-Israel lobby faces fire as it moves to curb terrorism

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Israeli artillery shells rained down on Lebanon last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee mobilized its forces to avert a public relations crisis amid worldwide criticism of the Jewish state.

Only hours after Israeli gunners inadvertently hit a U.N. post in Lebanon, killing some 100 refugees, AIPAC sent members of Congress and major media outlets fact sheets reminding recipients that the militant Hezbollah had sparked the latest round of fighting by breaking a 1993 agreement not to fire on Israeli territory.

At least half a dozen members of Congress took advantage of hand-delivered speaking points as they took to the floor of the House and Senate to defend Israel's war against Hezbollah terrorism.

AIPAC is most visible and best known for its clear-cut defense of Israel in times of crisis.

But as AIPAC prepares for its 37th annual policy conference Sunday, the pro-Israel lobby is finding that as peace emerges in the Middle East, pro-Israel activism sometimes comes in shades of gray.

While AIPAC continues its primary mission of securing U.S. foreign aid to Israel, the lobby has expanded its agenda to include measures related to the peace process and legislation aimed at curbing terrorism.

The difficulties have emerged in part because AIPAC, which once spoke on Capitol Hill for virtually the entire Jewish community, has faced competition over the past few years from Jewish activists across the political spectrum opposed to AIPAC positions.

These differing views have spilled over on issues ranging from aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization to counterterrorism legislation to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

At the same time, AIPAC has been forced to adapt its strategies to a new political landscape. When Republicans captured Congress in 1994, the result was a new leadership as well as a record number of new members, many of whom opposed any foreign aid.

"The issues might change as history changes, but the traditional role is the same: to make sure Israel's most important ally is as supportive as it can possibly be," said Neal Sher, AIPAC's executive director.

For AIPAC, successful campaigns on foreign aid are easily measured. Officials can point to recent roll call votes in which record numbers of lawmakers supported it.

But when it comes to the peace process, success is interpreted more subjectively.

For some Jewish organizational officials, AIPAC's record on supporting the peace process is a "mixed bag."

"In the end, they came through, but along the way there was a lot of prodding," said one such official, who asked not to be identified.

An Israeli official here described AIPAC's activity on behalf of the peace process as "tepid support."

But AIPAC officials vehemently deny the charges.

"We most certainly have done enough to support the peace process," Sher said, citing the lobby's work in support of aid to the Palestinians.

For all the criticism, some Jewish officials have joked that AIPAC has become the lobby for the Palestinians as well, because it spent so much time working on the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which enables the flow of U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

The pro-Palestinian aid stance has drawn criticism from other segments of the Jewish community. AIPAC has been forced to compete on Capitol Hill as Jewish activists such as Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, have lobbied legislators against aid to the PLO.

"AIPAC should at least be neutral on the issue of aid to the PLO," Klein said.

But others say there is a consensus for supporting the peace process and that aid to the Palestinians is part of that support.

"The peace process agenda on Capitol Hill has been delivered," Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said, referring to AIPAC.

"At the end of the day all of the objectives in support of the peace process that the Israeli government wished to see achieved in Washington have been accomplished."

Congress ultimately passed an 18-month extension of the MEPFA package that included more conditions with which the Palestinians must comply.

An issue that generated some of the loudest criticism of AIPAC, from both inside and outside the Jewish community, centered on the congressional initiative to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The pro-Israel lobby embraced Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's (R-Kan.) initiative, which he announced at AIPAC's policy conference last year.

After a bruising fight between Congress and the Clinton administration, which said the measure would stop the peace process, a compromised provision that allows the president to delay the move passed Congress.

Israeli officials privately argued against a vote on the measure, fearing that Congress' actions would harden the positions of Palestinian peace negotiators. Many Jewish groups opposed the measure's timing.

In the end, a compromise version passed and AIPAC declared victory.

During the past year, AIPAC has broadened its legislative agenda, pushing for economic sanctions against firms trading with Iran.

AIPAC also pushed for counterterrorism legislation, a watered-down version of which passed Congress last week and President Clinton signed this week.

Even as AIPAC expands its agenda, officials continue to dedicate most of their resources to its bread-and-butter issue: foreign aid for Israel.

Despite the budget battles in Washington, lawmakers passed a foreign aid package, which retained the traditional $3 billion in aid for Israel.

AIPAC's new president, Melvin Dow, predicts that Israel's foreign aid is safe in the short term, but a "more intense rivalry" over a shrinking pie awaits AIPAC lobbyists.

AIPAC now finds itself in the unenviable position of fighting for about 25 percent of the total U.S. foreign aid budget.

And the task of lobbying for Israeli aid will begin in earnest at the policy conference, when more than 1,000 activists plan to go to Capitol Hill to meet with their members of Congress.