AIPAC hopes event may mend strained ties

Lobby hoping Clinton finds venue welcoming enough to 'reset' ties with Israel.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPOND
March 22, 2010 02:46
4 minute read.
Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Hillary Clinton 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have the opportunity to hit the proverbial reset button with Israel when she addresses America’s largest pro-Israel lobby Monday morning amidst some of the gravest tensions between the two countries in years.

Clinton, who famously called for a reset of relations with Russia last year, has toned down the rhetoric toward Israel in recent days and is expected to deliver a message of reassurance and support for the US-Israel relationship, even as she holds to basic tenets of Obama administration policy that has included criticism of Israel on settlements.

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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will be hosting Clinton, is looking to provide a welcome venue for such an overture and keep its annual conference on course to showcase the strong US-Israel relationship.

But the recent rupture has cast a pall over this annual celebration of US-Israel ties, with many conference attendees expressing worry and wariness over the Obama administration’s intentions.

The extent to which there are concerns about how the crowd will greet Clinton – given her upbraiding of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 10 days ago after the Interior Ministry announced the Ramat Shlomo housing project during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit – was evident in the steps AIPAC is taking to keep its tone civil.

“We must greet everyone with the warmth, deference and respect that we would in our own home,” David Victor, chairman of the AIPAC board, said in remarks prepared to be delivered Sunday night, ahead of Clinton’s speech early Monday. “We are not here to protest. We are here to win the policy debate.”

And before Sunday’s opening plenary session, a brief video instructing the audience on appropriate behavior included footage of a previous Clinton appearance before AIPAC.



The plenary focused on Israel’s hi-tech achievements before turning to America’s role in the world, where the crowd at points made clear its feelings about the recent brouhaha.

The audience applauded when Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called on the Obama administration to repair its relations with Israel, as well as later when he suggested that if it wanted to improve its Middle East policy case in Europe, “It can start by not creating a bilateral crisis over a faux settlement dispute.”

Fellow panelist Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy assessed that “we’re at a very serious moment” between the two countries, putting the current crisis at a 5 or 6 on a scale of 10.

He was cheered when he said the probable result of the US-Israel flap would be to speed up Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, but would also “hasten the clock of Israeli preventive action on Iran.”

Thousands of people filled an enormous convention center hall to watch the session, part of the record 7,500-plus people at this year’s policy conference. While most signed up well in advance of the current US-Israel flare-up, some in the audience felt moved to come by the tensions between the US and Israel they’d witnessed in recent days.

“Right now is a very important time for Israel,” said Isaac Yerushalmi, a 23-year-old University of California, Irvine, student who decided to sign up 10 minutes before pre-registration closed on Friday night.

“Within 12 hours I was on a plane,” said Yerushalmi, who was motivated to sign up by criticism of Israel he saw on his campus and the “frightening” US-Israel row.

“I want to do something to make sure the relations between the two countries stay strong,” he explained. “By coming here and speaking to my congressman, I feel maybe I can make a little bit of a difference.”

Yerushalmi will be among the thousands of conference participants hitting Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge congressman to support aid to Israel, action on Iran and backing for the US-Israel relationship.

The message is driven home in bipartisan letters to Clinton drafted by US senators and representatives, which include the sentiment that “we hope and expect that, with mutual effort and good faith, the United States and Israel will move beyond this disruption quickly, to the lasting benefit of both nations.”

Many members of Congress have already weighed in affirming the US-Israel relationship and in some cases chiding the Obama administration for offering such loud and public criticism of Israel.

A handful of members, however, have also expressed concern about Israel’s actions in approving the housing during what was to have been a goodwill tour by Biden.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman of California, who was one of the lead sponsors on the House letter being lobbied by AIPAC and who urged both parties to keep the situation “in perspective,” also said, “The administration had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement. A process was supposed to be in place to keep the United States from being blindsided by just such a development, and yet once again we were blindsided.”

The administration certainly felt taken by surprise, with Clinton going so far as to call the move an “insult” and to question Israel’s commitment to the peace process and its relations with the US.

But on Thursday night Clinton spoke at length with Netanyahu – who has publicly apologized for the timing of the housing decision – and on Friday she described the conversation as “useful and productive.”

She also said the US-Israel relationship was “deep and broad” and “strong and enduring.”

After her address, Clinton will meet with Netanyahu, who himself will address the gathering at the event’s gala dinner Monday night.  

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