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News Analysis: Aipac Must Again Shift Gears to Reflect a New Israeli Regime

A decision to drop its long-standing opposition to a Palestinian state could not have come at a better time for the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobbying group.

Stung by attacks from aides to Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak who have charged that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a Likud-oriented organization that has never fully supported. the peace process, the group wanted to prove that it is not out of step with Israel.

Even Likud’s acting leader Ariel Sharon has said that a Palestinian state is “inevitable.”

Barak’s Labor Party dropped its own opposition to statehood three years ago. So with a sense of drama, AIPAC’s executive committee convened on Sunday, one year after the body — after heated debate — failed by a slim margin to adopt the same position.

This time around, the executive committee overwhelmingly killed the 15-year-old policy after a brief debate behind closed doors that focused more on grammar than substance.

To be sure, AIPAC did not come out in support of Palestinian statehood.

Instead, the group, which celebrated its 40th anniversary during its annual policy conference here this week, endorsed a “political solution” that would “permit the exercise of Palestinian self-government while excluding those powers that would endanger the security of Israel.”

Whether the Palestinian entity becomes a state is a matter for negotiations, the group said.

Although AIPAC’s shift on Palestinian statehood proved to be a coincidence of timing — the group’s leadership had been pushing for the policy change to happen this week, not knowing whether a new Israeli prime minister would be elected without a runoff — the shift gives the organization some much-needed ammunition in its effort to reposition itself behind the new prime minister.

It also reflects a reality of American Jewish life. AIPAC, like most Jewish organizations, is once again being forced to adjust to a dramatic shift in the Israeli government.

This shift, which over the past decade has moved every election cycle from Likud to Labor to Likud and back to Labor, is particularly significant for AIPAC, which lobbies in support of Israel on Capitol Hill and with the U.S. administration.

The latest change leaves many wondering what Barak’s Washington agenda will be and whether he sees AIPAC as a vehicle for achieving that agenda.

Just months ago, while Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel, AIPAC found itself playing a pivotal role at a time of strained relations between Israel and the Clinton administration.

As the U.S. administration was snubbing Netanyahu and pressuring him to move forward on the stalled peace process, AIPAC on numerous occasions mobilized Congress to protect Israel against pressure from the White House.

The group touted as one of its most significant achievements a March 1998 letter signed by 81 senators who pledged to oppose U.S. pressure on Israel.

Now AIPAC will be called on to support an Israeli government that has promised to move forward with negotiations with the Palestinians, and possibly the Syrians as well.

This means that instead of focusing its lobbying efforts in Congress to press the Palestinians to comply with its commitments, AIPAC will have to shift gears.

At the same time, the group is in a wait-and-see mode with Barak, who will likely take a tough position with the Palestinians. AIPAC officials say they will have to work to lower expectations in Congress for an immediate peace agreement.

Once Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume, the parties are going to be immersed in the most difficult issues yet, including final borders, statehood, refugees, water and the status of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, AIPAC will continue to work, as it traditionally has, as a primary proponent of foreign aid. And it will continue to focus, as it has in more recent years, for legislation that impedes Iran’s ability to acquire missile technology and nuclear capabilities.

But the organization would also like to be seen as a key player as the peace process returns to center stage in U.S.-Israel relations.

Lonny Kaplan, president of AIPAC, says the group is up to the task. “We have structured our work in such a way to be ready for the twists and turns” in the political landscape, he said.

With this in mind, AIPAC leaders dramatically changed the rhetoric and tone of this year’s conference, which marked the lowest attendance this decade. AIPAC counted 900 delegates, plus 600 students.

Gone were the passionate speeches against the Palestinians for not complying with the peace accords with Israel. Instead AIPAC officials spoke in general terms about the benefits of peace.

“Anyone who cares about Israel should support peace, should be working with every fiber of their being to attain it,” AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, said in his convention address.

Kaplan echoed that view, saying that his mission is “to bring closer the day when peace comes” to Israel.

Part of the challenge for AIPAC will be to convince the Barak-led government that it stands behind him.

Barak aides had been incensed when he was not originally invited to participate in this year’s AIPAC conference. Thinking that an election runoff was in the works and that Netanyahu would still be Israel’s prime minister, AIPAC officials chose to invite only the sitting premier.

AIPAC received the same complaint from Likud in 1996, when Netanyahu, who was running against Shimon Peres, was excluded from the annual conference.

As soon as the election results were clear last week, AIPAC quickly reversed course, withdrawing the invite to Netanyahu and issuing one to Barak.

Barak declined, pleading a tight schedule as he works to put together a government coalition.

And while bad feelings linger among some in the Barak camp, Barak and his most senior deputies have signaled in private conversations with AIPAC leaders that he is ready to bury the hatchet, according to AIPAC and Labor Party officials.

In a letter to the delegates, Barak said, “Historically important tasks lie ahead of us, and only joining hands together can bring about their successful accomplishment.

“Your success is our success,” he wrote, expressing his “deep appreciation to the entire American Jewish community and on this special day to AIPAC in particular for its invaluable contribution to strengthening U.S.-Israeli relations throughout the years.”

For their part, AIPAC officials pledged unwavering support.

“AIPAC will work tirelessly with the new prime minister as he endeavors to strengthen Israel, her economy, her military and her people,” Kohr said in his speech.

“And, Mr. Barak, we look forward to working with you in your most awesome task of all: the pursuit of peace,” he said.

Indeed, the new AIPAC message appears to be: Let Israel make its own decisions when it comes to talks with its Arab neighbors.

As Betty Ehrenberg, the Orthodox Union’s representative at the conference, said in explaining her decision to reverse course with regard to AIPAC’s position on Palestinian statehood: “We need to give the new government room without stepping on its toes. This leaves the decision up to the Israeli government.”

AIPAC is encountering the same problem that it had in 1992, when the newly elected premier, Yitzhak Rabin, slammed AIPAC for promoting issues that generated “unnecessary antagonism” in U.S. government circles.

Zalman Shoval, serving his second term as a Likud appointed-ambassador to the United States, said he is hoping to avoid a similar confrontation this time around.

“We all value the immense importance of AIPAC, especially at this time when we are at the doorstep of the most important issues in the peace process,” Shoval said.

But it’s going to take more than speeches at a policy conference for AIPAC to truly get behind the Barak government.

For one thing, Barak’s supporters are waiting to see if AIPAC will encourage Congress to change its approach from lashing out against the Palestinians to encouraging peace initiatives.

They specifically want to see AIPAC thwart efforts in Congress by forces in the American Jewish community who are likely to oppose some of Barak’s policies.

This is hardly the time for tension between Israel’s government and AIPAC, activists argue.

Barak will not always agree with the Clinton administration and when it does not, he’s going to need AIPAC, they say.

But if AIPAC stumbles in its support for Barak, the group is facing a new reality on Capitol Hill, where the Israel Policy Forum has emerged as competition for AIPAC.

Both AIPAC and Israel Policy Forum officials say that IPF cannot replace AIPAC.

But the group has already put the pro-Israel lobby on notice.

“The Israeli people have spoken. They have chosen the path to a secure peace,” the group said in a prominently placed ad published in The New York Times on Tuesday, the last day of the AIPAC policy conference.

“Prime Minster-elect Ehud Barak has spoken. He has pledged to re-start the peace process as soon as possible,” the ad continued. “Now, American Jews must speak out too.”

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