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Congress gets conflicting advice on ‘road map’

WASHINGTON, April 8 (JTA) — Congress got a glimpse of the internal Jewish battle over the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as organizations last week swamped lawmakers with literature and lobbyists pushing particular interpretations of the plan. At issue is whether lawmakers should support a road map that places initial obligations solely on the Palestinians, or the current version that envisions simultaneous concessions by both sides. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent nearly 3,000 people to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, each asking congressmen to sign letters to President Bush asking him to reject calls for a road map that demands Israeli concessions up front. At the same time, each of two dovish Jewish groups — the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now — was faxing legislators’ offices and holding background briefings, calling the current road map the best available policy and urging lawmakers not to place conditions on progress toward peace. “We’re saying this isn’t a document we would have written, it certainly has its problems, but it’s the only game in town,” said Lewis Roth, APN’s assistant executive director. “The president shouldn’t have his hands tied in pursuing it.” AIPAC and others argue that the current incarnation of the road map, drafted by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations, places too much emphasis on a rigid timeline and doesn’t demand Palestinian reforms and an end to violence as preconditions to Israeli concessions. Many in the Jewish community also have been wary of the international presence in the road map, concerned that America’s three partners in the plan are biased toward the Palestinians. While AIPAC spent much of its recent policy conference praising the Bush administration, concerns linger that the White House will utilize the road map to mend fences with the European Union and the Arab world, which have not been supportive of the war against Iraq and see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key problem in the Middle East. Those concerns were heightened last month with Bush praised the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian Authority prime minister and announced he would unveil the road map once Abbas is confirmed. AIPAC is asking legislators to write the president, asking him to stick to his policy speech of June 24, 2002. Fulfillment of the four principles Bush laid out in the speech — an end to terror and violence against Israel, a new Palestinian leadership not tainted by terrorism, transparency in Palestinian government and an overhaul of the Palestinian security apparatus — will show when it’s time to move toward peace, the letters say. As of Monday, 28 senators and 124 representatives had added their signatures. The dovish groups suggest the letters are merely a way to sandbag progress towards peace. “Nothing in the letter is bad,” said M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s policy director. “What’s bad in that letter is what’s left out.” Rosenberg argues that AIPAC is ignoring steps Israel could take for peace. He wonders how many lawmakers will sign the letter because they support the principles it outlines, while wishing it listed what Israel should do as well. “Maybe there are members inclined to join the letter who, when armed with information from other groups, would realize that it’s not a good letter to join,” one congressional staffer said. In statements, press releases and a list of questions and answers sent to congressional offices last week, IPF and APN said the White House has shown a sincere desire to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that the effort should be embraced. “Placing unrealistic preconditions on U.S. engagement will mean that any Palestinian leader, however chosen, will lack the capacity to effectively fight terror,” said a letter to lawmakers from Debra DeLee, APN’s president. “Moreover, unrealistic preconditions will endanger the nascent reform initiative in the Palestinian Authority which led to the appointment of Prime Minister Abu Mazen,” as Abbas is also known. The dovish groups insist that the timing of their campaigns is coincidental, and that they were not trying to undercut AIPAC’s message. They argue that the agendas of both AIPAC and the dovish groups were set by President Bush’s actions. Both dovish groups say their aim is to show lawmakers that supporting AIPAC is not the only way to prove your pro-Israel credentials. “AIPAC bills itself as the voice of the pro-Israel community on Capitol Hill, when in fact they are one voice,” Rosenberg said. “They may not even be the majority voice.” Congressional staffers say last week’s maneuvering will change few entrenched viewpoints, but that the current international environment might change the views of some members who are wavering. “I think there’s a feeling in Congress that the Iraq war kind of changes things,” one staffer said. “I think a lot of members will think of putting pressure on Israel to take pressure off America, vis-a-vis the Arabs and Muslims that hate us.” For its part, AIPAC says it is accustomed to being attacked by Jewish groups from both the left and right, and that the dovish groups have a personal stake in continuing the peace process. “They’ve come out with an interpretation that supports their own narrative,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar said. “For them, accepting this vision that the United States and Israel have endorsed would mean abandoning a lifelong crusade and coming to terms with their own irrelevance.” While the Bush administration no doubt is hearing the dichotomy of views, it does not seem to be embracing the more dovish groups. Five senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, spoke at the AIPAC conference. In contrast, IPF has not consistently been on the administration’s invitation list for consultations with the Jewish community. “I think it will be interesting when they unveil the road map and the people they have been courting” — meaning AIPAC — “bash them, and the people they haven’t let in the door embrace them,” said one Jewish leader not affiliated with any of the groups.

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