Pro-Israel lobbying group rolls with changes


WASHINGTON, March 13 (JTA) – As the U.S.-Israeli relationship undergoes a transition, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is sharpening its attack.

The policy agenda for the annual AIPAC policy conference, which convenes here Sunday, has been significantly trimmed down in an effort to discipline its message.

The number of items on the agenda has been cut in half from last year. Some changes have raised eyebrows.

Left off the platform this year are calls for the United States to condition relations with Syria on the end of its support for terrorism, a call for Egypt to foster peace and stability in the region and a plea for the United States to offer rewards for information about Palestinians who have killed American citizens.

But not everyone is happy about the changes.

“When special issues are omitted, it can be misconstrued that AIPAC considers these issues of lesser importance,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Klein, who serves on AIPAC’s executive committee, said he would introduce resolutions on those issues at the executive session.

AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker said the agenda should focus on consensus issues.

“The purpose of AIPAC’s Action Agenda is to promote issues of consensus within the community in regards to U.S.-Israeli relations,” Bricker said. “It’s not an opportunity for every single individual to throw in their pet project.”

At the top of the list of this year’s agenda is securing U.S. economic aid and military assistance for Israel. AIPAC member organizations said while the group has had to shift its focus from promoting peace deals to preventing war because of the ongoing violence, the need for aid to Israel never changes.

“AIPAC’s essential role has been to protect Israel’s portion of the foreign aid budget and to expand aid in its entirety,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Getting pro-Israel initiatives through Washington in the last few years was relatively easy, as the Clinton administration was more than willing to play a role in the pursuit of peace.

“When you are a pro-Israel group and advocating a pro-Israel position, and the administration is already pro-Israel, it makes your job a lot easier,” said Lewis Roth, associate executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “You are pushing on an open door.”

APN and the Israel Policy Forum were closely aligned with the agenda put forth by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton. Now, with those administrations gone, those organizations have been, in effect, marginalized, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“There are always organizations that come up at particular periods,” Hoenlein said. “That changes when the circumstances change.”

And with the violence and the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, AIPAC’s work may be harder. While many of the significant developments during the Oslo peace process were handled through direct communication between Barak and Clinton, the new administrations in both countries may need congressional support to get their pro-Israel agendas passed.

With the violence in the Middle East constantly in the news, encouraging lawmakers to support Israel may take extra work.

“The last six months have shaken up a lot of people, including those who were strong supporters of the Oslo process,” Raffel said.

Bricker said it is key for AIPAC to send the message to Congress that the current violence is being led by the Palestinian government.

“This is not an intifada, this is not an uprising,” Bricker said. “This is a strategic choice by the Palestinian Authority to use violence to exert more concessions outside of the negotiating process.”

Bricker said AIPAC will work to educate Congress to try to tell them “the whole story.”

AIPAC’s conference will feature the new faces of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Bricker is enthusiastic about the number of people attending the conference, and said he thinks the pro-Israel community in America will be vocal during this period of instability in the region.

“Clearly, the community has gotten the message that Israel needs them now,” Bricker said.

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