Behind the Headlines: off to Washington; Jews Crowd Capitol Hill to Press Their Causes

During World War II American Jewish leaders were said to have met only once with President Roosevelt and had to submit their questions in advance.

Times have changed.

Now everyone else “can usually fit meetings with others in between meetings with Jewish leaders,” U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) joked at the recent National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council annual plenum here.

The New York senior senator’s comment proved almost prophetic these past few weeks, as American Jews and Israeli politicians blanketed the nation’s capital for meetings which scores of congressional leaders and senior administration officials.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was perhaps the busiest of the visitors last week, meeting with 12 members of Congress in six hours. Then he was off to sessions with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, where he pressed for continued support for the peace process.

In addition to encountering the occasional skeptical lawmaker on Capitol Hill, Peres came across one of his staunchest Israeli political foes — Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who had come to Washington to press his own agenda.

Both Press and Netanyahu met with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as with Democratic and Republican party leaders.

Peres asked members of Congress to support plans that would bring economic benefits to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, according to congressional aides who attended the meetings. Peres also asked the members of Congress not to rule out stationing American forces on the Golan Heights if Israel and Syria reach a peace agreement that calls for monitors.

Netanyahu, according to aides, asked the lawmakers to take a hard look at the peace process and re-evaluate American’s interests in funding Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. The opposition leader also argued against sending American forces to the Golan.

Virtually everywhere Peres turned on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu had already been there, arguing the opposite viewpoint.

Peres’ Capitol Hill visits took “the tone of damage control”, one congressional aide said.

“Netanyahu made a credible case. It’s becoming harder to support aid for the Palestinians”, this aide to a leading Republican congressman said.

At the same time that Peres and Netanyahu crisscrossed Capitol Hill, delegates to the NJCRAC plenum met with members of Congress as well as State Department and other administration officials to press their newly passed resolutions, including one supporting the peace process.

As the NJCRAC delegates prepared to leave Washington, the barrage of Jewish leaders continued as a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations arrived for a jammed-packed day of meetings with congressional leaders, Lake and Christopher.

According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, the group of more than 40 Jewish leaders pressed for support for the peace process, a unified Jerusalem and the anti-terrorism legislation that was being introduced the next day.

“I had never heard so much support for the peace process since September 1993″ when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles, an aide to one congressman said, referring to the slew of meetings.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the week came for the dozen board members of the National Jewish Democratic Council board members who are also major donors to the Democratic Party.

The group scored a surprise meeting with President Clinton at the White House late on the night of Feb. 9. In their 20-minute meeting with the president and senior White House officials, the Democratic leaders reaffirmed their support for Clinton and focused on domestic issues, officials with the group said.

The NJDC bigs also met with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, focusing primarily on their opposition to school prayer legislation.

The activity continued this week as the executive committee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee descended on Washington for meetings and to lobby members of Congress.

Among the top items on their agenda as they lobbied members of Congress was support for foreign aid and support for an initiative to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

All told, the AIPAC dined with more than 40 new members of Congress and met with dozens of other lawmakers.

The latest flurry of lobbying by Jewish activists comes on the heels of a visit from leaders of Americans for Peace Now.

The pro-peace organization met with more than two dozen lawmakers two weeks ago in an effort to push the peace process.

Israel Policy Forum, a group supportive of the Rabin government, plans to pick up on the effort in a round of Capitol Hill visits scheduled for early March.

Israelis and Jews did not have the monopoly on lobbying for the peace process. The Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator Nabil Sha’ath also visited Capital Hill this week to seek support for the peace process.

In meetings with lawmakers Tuesday, Sha’ath pressed for continued economic aid to the cash-strapped authority.

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