Bush aides seek to allay AIPAC fears about peace plan

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration hauled out its heavy hitters this week 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 administration officials addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Some Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish leaders worry 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 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, 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 conference was to show that the administration stands behind Bush's 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."

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.

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 added, "it is not a matter of renegotiating the road map."

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.

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 towards 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.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who addressed the conference Sunday night, met Monday with Powell, Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney.

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.

Meanwhile, AIPAC delegates are lobbying 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."

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

Though many support the letters, such sentiments aren't universal in the Jewish community. Several 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.

M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, said, "Anyone who wants the peace process to succeed is supporting the road map."

Israeli Labor Party legislator Colette Avital praised the 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."