Delegates to AIPAC confab back Israel in peace talks

WASHINGTON — As pro-Israel activists gathered here this week for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, this much was clear:

There is no conflict or lack of clarity when it comes to backing Israel on its right to determine its own security requirements.

Indeed, recent attempts by the United States to force Israel's hand in ceding land to the Palestinians only seemed to galvanize and strengthen the resolve of the some 2,000 activists, pushing many of them more squarely into the corner of the Israeli government.

But for the most part, the Jewish leaders and rank-and-file activists who gathered from around the country were looking past the events of recent weeks, which had placed the greatest strain on U.S.-Israel relations since former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Bush sparred in 1991 over U.S. loan guarantees and Jewish settlements.

There was a sense that despite uncertainty over what would happen next, at least for the moment a trying period had passed and now was the time to reaffirm the bond between the two countries.

"One can disagree and disagree strongly with the administration over its strategic approach to any given issue, while still understanding this is an administration that's been deeply, deeply committed to the well-being of Israel," said conference attendee Jerry Yanowitz, president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

The AIPAC conference was convened at a time of delicate and intense U.S. efforts to break the deadlock in the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinians talks. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright threatened to reconsider the U.S. mediating role if Israel did not accept a U.S. "bridging" plan.

Last week, under fire from Congress and American Jewish organizational leaders, the Clinton administration backed away from ultimatums and deadlines, and quickly moved to downplay any hint of confrontation.

The reassessment came after the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations accused the administration of crafting policies in the peace process that are perceived to "complicate the negotiations" and have "given rise to significant concerns and have created perceptions of shift in U.S. policy toward Israel."

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent remarks that it would be "in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state" served to further stoke the ire of American Jews, many of whom saw the comment as another pressure point from the administration.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a five-day visit to Washington and New York that ended this week, sought to win support for Israel's position that the U.S. proposal would endanger Israel's security. Two intensive rounds of talks between Netanyahu and Albright failed to produce a breakthrough, and the Israeli premier emerged from the week with strong backing from Congress and American Jewish groups.

While the American Jewish community remains divided about how to proceed in the peace process, the consensus view from the pro-Israel community represented at the AIPAC conference was that the Clinton administration had stepped way over the line in attempting to impose its judgment on Israel.

But there was also broad agreement that the administration should continue to play a role as a facilitator in the process.

Support for Clinton, whom many Jews have hailed as the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, appeared to have dampened in the wake of recent events. There were still cheers during the conference for the administration and its efforts, but they were more subdued than in years past.

While many Jewish leaders went out of their way to praise the Clinton administration's record of friendship, the message to U.S. policy-makers was clear.

"Public pressure on Israel is counterproductive because it doesn't work, it hurts the cause of peace and it undermines the essential pillars of the peace process," Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, told the delegates.

"Israel," he added, "cannot be seen as yielding to pressure, particularly as it moves toward the much more difficult final-status talks."

For many activists, the events of recent weeks evoked scorn for the administration and sharpened their support for the Israeli government's position.

As 65-year-old Reni Roberts of New York City put it, Hillary Clinton's comments "blew my mind because a state means being allowed to arm and have missiles."

Roberts, who called herself a strong supporter of President Clinton, said she wrote a letter last week urging him to "stop pushing on Israel and start demanding from Arafat that he comply with the Oslo agreements."

The recent tensions, meanwhile, also appeared to impact the language adopted this year in AIPAC's action agenda. The group's executive committee — which includes officials from a wide range of Jewish organizations — decided against softening AIPAC's position on Palestinian statehood.

A proposal backed by some in the Jewish community, including AIPAC's own officials, would have called on the United States to oppose "the establishment of a Palestinian state with full, unlimited sovereign powers," rather than opposing a Palestinian state outright, which was the traditional position.

The proposal was adopted narrowly on a first vote by the executive committee. But opposition gathered amid concerns that the change would be portrayed as a declaration of support from AIPAC for a Palestinian state — and the item was ultimately defeated in a second vote by a very narrow margin.

In another move, the executive committee decided against language endorsing "energetic" American efforts to achieve peace, instead opting for the position that "the United States can play a constructive role in encouraging and facilitating negotiations."

For its part, Americans for Peace Now, which has a seat on the AIPAC executive committee, made clear to AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents and the Clinton administration that it believes there is no consensus among American Jews on these issues.

The group wrote a letter to Clinton, expressing encouragement for "your current efforts" to win Israeli support "for your bridging ideas that would break the dangerous stalemate."

At the AIPAC conference, in an effort to look to the future, the delegates took their cues in large part from Netanyahu, who helped set the tone with a conciliatory speech in which he underscored the Clinton administration's commitment to Israeli interests.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said Netanyahu "could have taken advantage of a perception of a rift, but he chose not to."

"Instead he went out of his way to talk about Clinton being a friend of Israel, and he did not talk about deadlines or ultimatums," Reich said. "He wanted to walk away with good feelings and he accomplished that."

For its part, the Clinton administration sought to reassure Jews at the AIPAC conference of its "ironclad" commitment to Israel.

Vice President Al Gore told the AIPAC delegates in a speech Monday night that the differences between the United States and Israel "are momentary and not permanent, they are about means and not ends."

He added emphatically: "Don't you even think for one minute that" the differences "belie even the slightest weakening in our underlying unity of purpose or will shift our relationship in any way, shape or form," Gore said, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, urged the pro-Israel community to help make the case to members of Congress that the Palestinians are not in compliance with their accords with Israel and that only Israel can determine its security interests.

"The marching orders are absolutely clear," said Chicago resident Josh Kantrow, 33, as he and other activists prepared to lobby their lawmakers on Capitol Hill, "and that is to let the congressmen know that public pressure on Israel by the U.S. government will only harm Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship."