I spent several hours on Sunday night at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual dinner, which was held at the Marriott Marquis Times Square. Under the leadership of its president, Mort Klein, the ZOA has been the most consistent and, often, the most effective American opponent of Israeli territorial concessions and U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.
The ZOA’s base is a mixture of secular and Orthodox right-wing Zionists, who can come together on at least one point: their belief that Arabs are murderous Jew-haters who will be motivated, not mollified, by Israeli and American appeasement. There were loud cheers when Klein insisted that peace could only be achieved after the Arab side was dealt a decisive military defeat and when he said that Jerusalem was more important than peace – that no deal would be acceptable, even if it were to bring peace.
The keynote address was delivered by Benzion Netanyahu, the 98-year-old professor, former Jabotinsky lieutenant and father of Bibi. Another scheduled speaker was Shelley Berkley, a Jewish Democratic congresswoman from Las Vegas who is one of ZOA’s top allies, especially on her side of the aisle. I say “scheduled” because another Jewish Democratic congressman with strong ties to ZOA, Brooklyn’s Anthony Weiner, continued his annual tradition of showing up for the dinner and giving an impromptu speech. And, of course, he broke out his usual line, saying that he and Berkley “come from the ZOA wing of the Democratic Party.”
Weiner took what everyone I talked to understood to be a swipe at AIPAC:
There is no organization in Washington, no organization at the grassroots that is more in keeping with making sure that Israel stays strong and our relationship stays solid than ZOA. Without fear of contradiction I’ll say this: more so than even that better known organization that does some very very important work.
ZOA is the organization, Weiner said, who can be counted on to take positions “without the fear of who’s going to say what and is it really the right political thing to say.” He added:
With Shelley Berkley and I standing up now as we are to make sure that we don’t make this ridiculous deal where we’re selling high-tech armarments to Saudi Arabia, some organizations are trying to figure out the right thing to do – ZOA knew instantly what the right thing to do [APPPLAUSE]. When we took the floor and said that this was folly providing more and more money for the Palestinians, not a single dime, not a single shekel should go. While other organizations hemmed and hawed, and looked to the editorial page, ZOA said we agree, there shouldn’t be any more funding [APPALUSE]. When Shelley and I said, sure maybe we should be providing some aid to Egypt, but should we provide it with high-tech military hardware, year after year after year after year? Some organizations prevaricated, ZOA said absolutely we should not and stood with Shelley and me [APPLAUSE].
Weiner’s comments come at a time when AIPAC is already facing heat from one of its top donors, casino mogul and GOP supporter Sheldon Adelson, for supporting a congressional letter urging more financial support to boost Abbas.
Both during her speech and afterwards, Berkley was critical of the upcoming Annapolis meeting, arguing that no peace conferences should take place until several more steps are taken by the Palestinians, including the cessation of terrorism. But she resisted the suggestion that the Bush administration is pressuring Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into participating.
You know what, I’m not going to second guess the prime minister of Israel. He was elected by the Israeli people, he’s their elected representative. If I was prime minister I don’t think I would be agreeing to the Saudi arms sale, I don’t think I would be agreeing to send half a billion dollars in direct cash payments to the P.A. and I don’t think I’d be sitting down to negotiate peace unless I had a partner who believed in peace.
I asked the congresswoman to comment on claims from Olmert’s critics that he is going along with the peace talks to save his own neck, either from prosecutors or the voters.
“I wouldn’t have a comment on that,” Berkley said. “I don’t know.”
Do you have faith that his judgments are being made with Israel’s best interests in mind?
“I would hope that any prime minister of Israel would have Israel survival first and foremost on his mind.”
Mortimer Zuckerman, who was there to introduce the senior Netanyahu, seemed much more definitive when I asked him if he had confidence in Olmert: “I have confidence in every Israeli prime minister, sure I do. I think he is a patriot, too.”
Zuckerman, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, gave thumbs down to Annapolis, warning that it could backfire, since neither Olmert nor Abbas are in a position to cut a significant deal. (Speaking of the Conference of Presidents the group’s top professional, Malcolm Hoenlein, was at the dinner, and received a “thank you” from Klein during his speech.)
“There is no doubt that there is great pressure from the secretary of state on the Israelis,” Zuckerman said. At the same time, he praised President Bush and expressed complete trust in him on the issue of Israel’s security.
Can one separate the president from his secretary of state?
“I don’t want to get into that,” Zuckerman said.