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Sitting between Bibi and Obama, AIPAC criticized by left and right

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Days after AIPAC’s apparent success navigating the churning waters between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, the pro-Israel lobby is being criticized by Jewish groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

Pro-Israel groups on the right and left have assailed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee because of elements of its agenda that emerged from its annual policy conference this week.

The Zionist Organization of America registered a protest about AIPAC’s backing for Palestinian statehood. Meanwhile, three groups that backed the U.S.-sponsored peace process — Americans for Peace Now, J Street and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — rallied supporters to help roll back Tuesday afternoon’s Capitol Hill blitz by 7,000 AIPAC delegates, suggesting the organization had failed to fully endorse Obama’s peace moves.

The AIPAC conference suggested a middle road that could reconcile differences between the two young governments over a key issue — whether to press toward Palestinian statehood.

The AIPAC delegates’ wish list included endorsements for two congressional letters that unequivocally support a “viable Palestinian state,” albeit with the usual preconditions about an “absolute” end to Palestinian violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to maintain ambiguity over his views on a Palestinian state, but such an endorsement for the concept by AIPAC is unlikely to have come without some sort of nod from Jerusalem: Netanyahu addressed the conference via satellite and sent some of his top advisers.

The endorsement of a Palestinian state by the pro-Israel lobby now may spare Netanyahu from having to explicitly endorse the concept himself — and elicit the opprobrium of his coalition’s pro-settler flank — when he meets with President Obama in two weeks.

Good save, Israel-side, but it upset the ZOA — the most prominent American group opposing a Palestinian state — stateside.

In a statement, the ZOA said it “opposes this move by AIPAC because supporting or promoting a Palestinian Arab state under prevailing conditions is seriously mistaken and because AIPAC is thereby supporting a major policy affecting Israel’s vital interests despite the fact that the Israeli government has not supported such a policy.”

The three groups from the left taking shots across AIPAC’s bow have never had a problem differing with Israeli policy. What was unclear was where they substantively disagreed with AIPAC, at least on the Palestinian front.

Americans for Peace Now encouraged activists to call lawmakers and make the following four points: “I am pro-Israel, and I want you to support the Obama administration’s peace efforts in the Middle East"; “I am pro-Israel, and I want you to support the president’s request for supplemental assistance for the Palestinians"; “I am pro Israel, and I want you to support the president’s effort to open the window for responsible engagement with a Palestinian unity government"; and “I am pro-Israel, and I want you to reject efforts to promote new Iran sanctions legislation, or efforts to impose any artificial deadlines for ending diplomacy with Iran.”

The e-mail blast also stated that AIPAC’s “agenda is often not the same as ours.” Action alerts from Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and J Street to their followers did not explicitly target AIPAC but similarly urged backing for Obama’s peace principles the very week that AIPAC delegates were making their case in Washington.

Yet the congressional letters backed by AIPAC back the first two principles in the Peace Now alert — Obama’s initiative and supplemental assistance.

On the third issue, JTA has learned that AIPAC has signed off quietly on a policy that would involve the United States engaging with a Palestinian national unity government that included individuals approved by Hamas, as long as those individuals explicitly committed to the three principles Hamas abjures: an end to terrorism, recognition of Israel and an agreement to abide by earlier peace agreements. That more or less aligns with the policies outlined in recent week by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On the fourth issue, Iran sanctions, it is true that AIPAC strongly backs the tough sanctions legislation opposed by the three left-wing groups.

An official for one of the three groups acknowledged — and welcomed — AIPAC’s endorsement of the Obama administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. The official said he now saw the difference as more one of emphasis, arguing that the three groups’ endorsement of support for the Palestinian Authority was much more aggressive.

Another pro-Israel official, close to AIPAC, said attacks from the right and the left affirmed the group’s place in the mainstream.

It’s not the first time AIPAC has taken hits from its right and left, although the coincidence of the attacks is unusual. In 2007, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and a major AIPAC donor, threatened to cut off the group for backing a letter to the Bush administration urging it to increase funding for the Palestinian Authority. Dovish groups targeted AIPAC the year before for backing the tough restrictions on aid written into the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.

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