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In Major Policy Shift, Aipac Offers Strong Backing for Withdrawal Plan

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Ariel Sharon has received what he came to Washington for — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s wholehearted endorsement of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. AIPAC’s endorsement puts the pro-Israel lobby squarely in line with the American and Israeli governments, in favor of a policy that still is engendering tremendous dissent at home and abroad.

There never was any doubt that AIPAC would offer some measure of support for the Gaza withdrawal, since the lobby is committed to backing the policies of the Israeli government.

The only question was the degree of support: Sharon, who was to speak to AIPAC on Tuesday, needs all the backing he can get.

Settlers continue to snipe at Sharon at home and have stirred up considerable backing in the United States. Hecklers booed the Israeli prime minister at a speech in New York on Sunday, and demonstrators outside the building where Sharon spoke wore orange T-shirts in solidarity with settlers who will be evacuated from Gaza.

Sharon already has won the endorsement of an array of national Jewish groups — a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times praised his “courageous disengagement plan” — but AIPAC’s endorsement is the plum.

Sharon needn’t have worried: It was clear from the launch of this year’s annual policy conference on Sunday that AIPAC was undertaking a dramatic policy shift.

For the first time since the collapse of the Oslo accords, AIPAC was envisioning Israel’s pullout not just from Gaza, but from the West Bank as well — and in terms that demanded less than absolute stability from the Palestinians.

“If the Palestinians transform Gaza into a reasonably well-functioning, reasonably peaceful place — not necessarily Sweden — then the world won’t have to pressure Israel to do this in the West Bank,” Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, said at the conference.

It was enough to make one of AIPAC’s most persistent critics, Americans for Peace Now, swoon with delight.

“We’re very pleased that AIPAC has given its formal endorsement to the U.S. government’s support for the disengagement initiative,” said Debra DeLee, APN’s president.

But the policy shift from AIPAC’s leadership didn’t necessarily trickle down to members at the conference: There were shouted arguments in the corridors between opponents of disengagement, distinguished by their orange buttons, and supporters of Sharon.

Delegates said they noted a marked change from last year’s policy conference, when Israel still faced a major terrorist threat and delegates enthusiastically embraced AIPAC’s talking points for the final day of the conference — which is spent lobbying on Capitol Hill — including support for Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

“It’s like 1978,” said Rabbi Sidney Helbraun of Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, Ill., referring to a time when AIPAC had to accommodate another fundamental shift in ideology, when the Likud won power and began promoting a “Greater Land of Israel” philosophy.

Judging by the applause, the two other lobbying points on AIPAC’s agenda this year — for continued financial assistance to Israel and for tightened sanctions on Iran — were much more popular than support for disengagement.

Still, the supportive rhetoric from Kohr and other AIPAC officials was unimaginable a year ago, when Sharon’s failure to win an internal Likud Party vote on withdrawal led AIPAC to drop the issue from its policy conference agenda.

A lot has happened in the intervening year, however: Sharon won support for the pullout in the Knesset and in his Cabinet; Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, reviled by the United States and Israel, died, and Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate, was elected in his place; and President Bush was re-elected and is vigorously pursuing a Pax Americana in the Middle East in his second term.

Then there was the FBI investigation that came to light last August, targeting two former AIPAC employees for allegedly receiving classified Pentagon information and relaying it to Israel. The investigation has permeated the conference, with Kohr and AIPAC president Bernice Manocherian underscoring their cooperation with law enforcement.

“AIPAC is a public community trust,” Kohr said. “I therefore pledge to you that I will take the steps necessary to ensure that every employee of AIPAC — now and in the future — conducts themselves in a manner of which you can be proud, using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and maintain our effectiveness.”

AIPAC spokesmen would not elaborate on those procedures.

The investigation didn’t deter members of the Bush administration and Congress from offering AIPAC their traditional show of support.

“Judging by how many students I see in the audience today, I know that AIPAC’s future is clearly going to be bright,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said to thunderous applause at the beginning of her speech Monday.

Kohr’s speech marked an end to behind-the-scenes tussling in recent weeks between AIPAC and the White House over $200 million in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians after Israel’s withdrawal.

The Bush administration wanted the assistance to go directly to the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC lobbied Congress hard to include tough oversight provisions that effectively would keep all of the money out of P.A. hands, based on past P.A. corruption and ties to terrorism.

In the end, Congress stopped short of mandating the oversight provisions, allowing Bush some flexibility in how he spends the money.

Rice made it clear in her speech that the Bush administration was determined to support Abbas, a man whom, until recently, AIPAC seemed to trust even less than Israel’s government did. Bush and Abbas were to meet Thursday at the White House.

“President Abbas is committed to both freedom and security, and President Bush has offered his hand in friendship, just as he promised he would,” Rice said. “In three days, when they meet together here in Washington, they will build a relationship that is one that is based on the good faith that only democratic leaders can bring.”

In its opening video montage, AIPAC acknowledged the ambivalence many of its delegates must have felt over the Gaza withdrawal. Wrenching video footage showed settlers weeping as they contemplated leaving their homes. Both sides of the story were thoroughly and fairly presented.

But in the end, there was never any doubt about where AIPAC stood. The Israelis appearing in the video, and then live on the AIPAC stage, included a husband and wife who had made up their mind that the possibility of peace was worth the price of leaving Gaza. A mother and daughter who had bitterly resented their evacuation from the Sinai settlement of Yamit in 1982, but who now acknowledged the peace with Egypt that it brought, spoke as well.

More stunningly, the video, touting the “reduction in friction” that disengagement would bring, featured footage of Israeli troops lording it over Palestinians at a roadblock. The few seconds of footage were unprecedented from Israel’s foremost defender.

Significant as well was the conference’s first keynote speaker, Tsipi Livni, one of the strongest advocates of withdrawal in Sharon’s Likud Party.

“As a Jewish and democratic state, we have no choice but to give up some of the Land of Israel,” she said. “This is an understanding of the vast majority of Israelis.”

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