Arafat, intifada giving AIPAC new direction

WASHINGTON — It was just like old times at this week's policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was once again a blood enemy, not a peace partner; anti-Israel sentiment was rampant on college campuses; and, suddenly, all the ambiguity and dissension of recent gatherings of the pro-Israel lobby was history.

"This is an organization that has found its spirit again, its raison d'être," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was attending his first AIPAC policy conference in several years. "Israel is once again facing a war of attrition, and we are in the middle of a political transition period. So it is important for our community to come together and relate to Washington in as unified a voice as possible."

The resumption of Palestinian violence and the growing pressure on Israel from around the world "will make AIPAC's work easier, because there aren't so many different voices saying what Israel needs," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brought the crowd to its feet with his pledge that "Jerusalem will remain under the sovereignty of Israel — forever," during his keynote address.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators and student participants in the AIPAC program, shouting "pro-Israel, pro-peace," faced off outside the hotel. At a Washington news conference, American Muslim groups announced that they would ask U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to institute war crimes proceedings against the Israeli premier.

But inside the Washington Hilton, the Jewish community solidified around the pro-Israel message and around a politician some had once reviled.

"People are charged up," said an AIPAC board member who — citing the group's press policies — refused to speak on the record. "In recent years there have been all these gray areas; today it looks pretty black and white. It's easier for us to pull together because there aren't the divisions we've had over the negotiations."

After the speech, Sharon met privately with several members of Congress and Jewish activists described as old supporters.

The back-to-the-future motif was apparent throughout the conference.

In the opening session, AIPAC President Tim Wuliger spoke of the dramatic changes in the region since the last policy conference — when Israel and the Palestinians seemed to be on track to reach a final status agreement.

Referring to the resumption of Palestinian violence in late September, Wuliger called the uprising a buildup of "sinister forces" against Israel.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel reflected the view of many of the 1,000-plus participants when he expressed his disillusionment with that peace process.

"In the beginning, I believed in the Oslo accords," he said. "I had faith not in Yasser Arafat but in Yitzhak Rabin, whom I knew well."

Wiesel referred to his own refusal to meet Arafat, and said that "he came to Camp David with a determination not to accept anything that would be close to peace. And that has led me to the conclusion that he does not want peace. What I say to you hurts me, pains me; I think they don't want peace at all. It's not a matter of territory now; it's a matter of existence. They simply don't want Israel."

Like Sharon, Wiesel focused on Jerusalem as a unifying theme for Jews around the world, expressing "anxiety for its future, but also an overwhelming sense of gratitude for everything Jerusalem has given us, and all it will continue to give us to the end of time."

Wiesel also warned against a rising tide of both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism "not only among gentiles but also [in] certain Jewish intellectual, semi-intellectual leftist circles." He criticized the "ashamed Jews" who criticize Israel's policies.

He charged participants to redouble their activism on behalf of Israel.

"It is not given to everyone to make history," Wiesel said, "but it is incumbent on every one of us to take part in it."

Pro-peace activists were barely visible at the policy conference.

Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist, said conditions on the ground "have created a situation where even those who were the most supportive of the peace process have reached a point where they're willing to say that until the violence ends, it is impossible to find anybody to talk to."

Differences over the peace process continue, he said, but "it's more nuanced, quieter than in recent years. There's a real desire to be helpful, and to pull together. That's the real theme at this conference."

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