Washington: Splitting hairs or hair-raising splits?

Israel is out of sync with its American lobbyists on more than borderline issues.

AIPAC logo 88 (photo credit: )
AIPAC logo 88
(photo credit: )
The mega-spectacle put on this week at the Washington Convention Center by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee demonstrated, above all, that AIPAC is not one for subtle messages. The stage was flooded with red lights and video screens, welcoming participants on the opening day of the annual policy conference with a dazzling display of frightening events across the globe - from Ahmadinejad in Iran, to Hamas reign in the Palestinian Authority, to the terror attacks in London and the riots in Paris. Several speeches equated Iran with Nazi Germany. And Adolf Hitler's name was invoked regularly. Indeed, a sense of urgency was conveyed throughout. Even the logo chosen for the event - bold red letters spelling the word NOW (as in "We must act now") - had an alarmist connotation. AIPAC's alarmist approach has proved successful over the years. It was AIPAC, for example, at the forefront of the warning against the Iranian nuclear threat, well before the American mainstream grasped the gravity of the situation. In fact, the US's preparing itself to lead the world against Iranian ambitions is due, in part, to the organization's relentless work on this issue. Now, while not easing up pressure over Iran, AIPAC is gearing up to take on the Hamas-led PA. And it's doing so in typical AIPAC fashion - with black and white, and strokes of red. Leaving no room for shades of gray. AIPAC lobbyists are still analyzing the results of Tuesday's massive effort, involving nearly every member of Congress being paid a visit from a group of AIPAC activists from his or her constituency. Though the returns aren't in yet, the campaign is expected to have yielded a huge wave of support in Congress for the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 - one of the harshest bills ever drafted - which cuts off all direct aid to the PA; imposes strict limitations on the ability to provide humanitarian assistance; bans any diplomatic ties with the Hamas-led PA and the PLO; calls for shutting down the PLO mission in Washington; and curtails the Palestinian diplomats in the UN. What is particularly important about the bill - in its House of Representatives version, cosponsored by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) - is that it does not contain a waiver that would allow the president to override the provisions for reasons of national security; nor does it have a "sunset" clause, which means that the limitations in the bill will remain intact indefinitely, unless new legislation is approved. On Monday, Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Joe Biden (D-DE) presented the Senate version of the bill. It, too, contains harsh, anti-Hamas language, but it does allow the president to use his waiver authority in certain cases. This is considered to be close to what the administration would like to see as the bill's final version, though formally, neither the State Department nor the White House has voiced an opinion. Others have, however. Not only have pro-Palestinian groups begun to lobby against the legislation, but Left-wing Jewish groups - such as the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek V'Shalom (which sent out a letter, signed by 400 rabbis, calling for modifications of the bill) - feel that it simply goes too far. Israel is being silent on this issue. But public statements by Israeli leaders make it clear that some of the measures being endorsed by AIPAC are tougher than what Israel sees as its future course of action. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already said that Israel will follow the PA closely to see whether it makes any changes which would enable a resuming of negotiations. Other Israeli leaders have spoken about the need to continue the flow of a certain amount of international financial aid to the Palestinians, to prevent a humanitarian crisis and total collapse of the PA. THIS IS not the only instance of Israel and its American lobbyists being out of sync. On the question of the future of UNRWA, for example, AIPAC takes a much tougher stance than Israel. While the lobby is fighting to curb the UN refugee agency's work in the Palestinian territories, the Israeli government stresses the need for UNRWA to continue its work - albeit while ridding it of any ties to terrorist groups. Such nuanced differences between the AIPAC and Israel are understandable. In the first place, AIPAC is an American body, representing American citizens, not the State of Israel. Secondly, many view AIPAC as Israel's protector in the US, and as such, it is expected to take as tough a stand as possible on matters of Israel's security. Yet these differences may become more important in the next year or two. In his speech to AIPAC, broadcast live via satellite from his office in Jerusalem, Olmert presented the 5,000-member audience with his thoughts on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We will take the initiative as Prime Minister Sharon did," he said, giving the most important group of pro-Israel activists in the US a first glimpse of his plans for the day after March 28. "We will aspire within the next few years to ultimately decide on the permanent borders of the State of Israel and on separating from the Palestinians." He also said that in the absence of a Palestinian partner, Israel will act unilaterally, relying on the support of the American leadership. The audience applauded politely (giving a bigger hand than they did to Amir Peretz, who spoke the following day, but smaller than to Binyamin Netanyahu). The AIPAC agenda does not include promoting future disengagements or Israel's determining its borders on its own. If Israel is relying on American support for such moves, it must take into account that its lobby group in the US is not yet on board. This will not be the first time the pro-Israel lobby was behind the curve on issues relating to the peace process. While AIPAC was always the first to lead the way when it came to financial aid to Israel, maintaining Israel's qualitative edge or educating US lawmakers on Israel's foes (Iran, Syria, Hamas, Libya, Saudi Arabia), it lagged behind on dealing with the Oslo Accords in the early 90s and on handling disengagement. Sources close to AIPAC respond that it is still premature to deal with Israel's next disengagement, since Olmert has not won the elections yet and since no plan has been formally presented. Meanwhile, the group is focusing on the immanent threats facing Israel from radical Islamists with great success. One of the ways to assess AIPAC's effectiveness is by looking at whom is attending its annual gala dinner, during the policy conference. This year's turnout was remarkable: more than half the Senate, a third of the House, dozens of foreign diplomats and many members of the administration. According to an AIPAC press release, this was the largest sit-down dinner in Washington, attended by more members of Congress than any other event, with the exception of the State of the Union address.