WASHINGTON, March 20 (JTA) It was only a year ago that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was cheering Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and rallying support for the peace process.
What a difference a year makes.
Long perceived as being on the hawkish end of the American Jewish political spectrum, AIPAC appears to be shifting back toward its roots, trying to strike the right balance between the hope that peace might one day be possible and the conviction that the Palestinians have shown themselves woefully unprepared for peace right now.
In fact, AIPAC has placed the road to peace or, to use a term now clearly out of favor, the “peace process” not so much on a back burner as on a different stove altogether.
A new agenda has been adopted, one that focuses on the short term and on Israel’s immediate security. With Palestinian violence against Israel well into its sixth month and Iran and Iraq working to develop weapons of mass destruction leaders and grass-roots activists alike give short shrift to the possibility of imminent peace negotiations.
Those attending AIPAC’s Washington conference seemed purposeful but frustrated, strong in their commitment to stand with Israel but skeptical toward Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the chances for any meaningful breakthrough.
“The realities are just so different now,” said Ronald Rakoover of Austin, Texas, who added that the deteriorating security situation in Israel motivated him to attend the conference.
Others echoed the sour mood, disappointed that peace efforts had come to a violent end and unsure of the next policy push beyond urging an end to the fighting.
“Most people here don’t believe that peace with Arafat is possible,” said David Kahan of Troy, Mich., who was attending his 10th AIPAC policy conference.
Kahan is upset by the incitement and hatred of Israel prevalent in Palestinian media and schoolbooks, an issue that has begun to seep into mainstream consciousness after years on the margins.
“How can you see a ray of hope with this kind of behavior?” Kahan asked.
Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel finally gave his first address to AIPAC after years of declined invitations because he felt a need to raise his voice on the current situation.
AIPAC seems far more comfortable with a harder-line approach and a renewed focus on Israeli security than it did with last year’s role as supporter of a peace process that moved in fits and starts but produced few tangible results for Israel.
At the 2000 conference, AIPAC preached unwavering support for the peace process, and then-Prime Minister Barak called for unity from the American Jewish community.
This year, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called for unity, it had different connotations.
“Jerusalem will remain united under the sovereignty of Israel forever,” Sharon told attendees Monday night, touching on what was only recently a sticking point in peace talks under Barak but is a rallying cry for the new Israeli government.
The statement brought rousing applause, and a reference to Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” brought a standing ovation.
In his speech, Sharon sounded like the general he once was.
“Israel will not negotiate under fire,” he said. “I will do what is necessary to protect the people of Israel.”
Sharon did call for a “new, more realistic approach,” including a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians, but said conditions clearly were not right for a permanent peace deal.
As Sharon addressed the conference, hundreds of mostly Arab protesters gathered outside with banners reading “Free Palestine” and “No U.S. Tax Dollars for Israeli Oppression.” In response, Jews chanted “Stop the violence, stop the hate” and sang Israeli peace songs.
With 1,100 delegates attending a 22 percent increase over last year the conference was more animated than in recent years, attendees said.
According to one lawmaker, the harder-line message that AIPAC will bring to its Capitol Hill lobbying will be well-received.
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who was attending her 15th AIPAC conference, said she thought Congress would get tougher on Arafat.
Berkley also said it is in America’s interest to stand strong with Israel, and that the term “honest broker” would become obsolete.
The United States has to stand up now for Israel’s security, AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, told JTA.
While emphasizing the importance of a strong and united front for Israel, Kohr also cited the need for political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians and a return to the diplomatic process.
“There’s not a single person at this conference that doesn’t want to get back to the table,” he said.
But the terms at that bargaining table are not the topic on people’s minds.
The American Jewish community had been polarized on Israel, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, but the community is now more united and AIPAC’s message will be heard more clearly.
“People haven’t given up on peace,” Foxman said. “Just on peace now.”
The radically different political landscape has forced Jewish organizations to reassess their strategies, said Stanley Urman, executive director of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.
Israel is in a state of governmental transition, but both Israelis and Palestinians have become more entrenched in their positions, he added.
As for the AIPAC delegates, it appears their outlook also has hardened.
Some attendees booed Dennis Ross, former President Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, who had staked much of his career on the peace process. Yet mention of Israel’s military edge and calls for tougher stances against Arafat never failed to elicit rousing applause.