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As U.s., Israel Stand at Crossroads, Jewish Activists Promote Common Bond

April 24, 2002
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The mantra for pro-Israel activists is coming straight from the mouth of President Bush.

“You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

That theme, annunciated in Bush’s address to the nation shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, is resonating more than ever with pro-Israel activists who see parallels between America’s war on terrorism and Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians.

Fueled by the crisis confronting the Jewish state, these activists see this common bond as the best way to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“There’s now an obvious number one reason why America and Israel are partners, and that is terrorism,” said Mark Lederman of Warwick, N.Y., who attended this week’s annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

“Before there were nebulous ideas like democracy and Judeo-Christian values,” Lederman said. “Now, it is more concrete.”

Through rhetoric and working with Congress on legislation, the Israeli activists are trying to ride the coattails of an immensely popular military campaign and leadership in the United States by saying, in essence: If you support the war on terrorism, you must support Israel.

The strategy is important because it comes as both the United States and Israel stand at crossroads as they contemplate their next steps in the Middle East.

After 19 months of a Palestinian uprising, a spate of deadly suicide bombings in Israel, an Israeli military operation that decimated the Palestinian Authority and a failed mission by the U.S. secretary of state to secure a cease-fire, both the U.S. and Israel must figure out how to proceed.

For pro-Israel activists, the challenge is to make sure the U.S. approach does not deviate significantly from Israel’s.

The overall goal, as voiced by AIPAC leaders and delegates gathered here this week, is to shape American policy to allow Israel a free hand in its battles against the Palestinian Authority and to pressure the administration to desist from the mixed messages that have occasionally emerged from the White House and State Department over the past several months.

Some observers credit last week’s rally in Washington as a galvanizing point for the American Jewish community, where more than 100,000 Jews came together with a similar message.

The parties cautiously avoided criticism of White House policy and other divisive issues within the Jewish community, and tried to send a message in support of Israel’s right to defend itself and America’s war on terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, pro-Israel activists said they believed the United States and its leaders would have increased empathy for the plight of Israelis.

But it has been a bumpy ride.

The Bush administration began its war on terrorism with a full-fledged courting of the Arab states, heightening fears that Israel would have to pay for American military interests.

Most American Jews see the administration as immensely supportive of Israel. But sometimes U.S. and Israeli interests diverge.

The administration discovered, for instance, that it would not get Arab support for going after Iraq in its war on terrorism without interceding in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus Bush called for an immediate end to Israeli incursions in the West Bank, and before that became the first U.S. president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state.

But as the anti-terrorism campaign continued and images of suicide bombings in Israel brought back memories of Sept. 11 for the American people, Bush ratcheted up the pressure on the Palestinian leadership and Arab states.

He and other administration officials have also backed away somewhat from demands on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Still, the U.S. and Israeli approaches to Arafat are different, with the United States still seeing him as a partner and Israel wanting to see him sidelined.

Throughout the three-day AIPAC convention this week, the goal was to create grass- roots support for the U.S.-Israel bond, especially as Israel continues to withdraw from the West Bank without the promise of a cease-fire.

Part of the strategy also appears to be to create the image of the United States and Israel united against the rest of the world.

Palestinian terrorism and Arab extremism have always been the target of pro-Israel lobbyists, but the circle of antagonists has widened, given the anti-Israel — and sometimes anti-Semitic — rumblings emerging from the European community, the Arab world and the United Nations.

Another theme is that Israel’s military actions against Palestinian terrorism makes the Jewish state a leading player in America’s anti-terrorism campaign.

“Israel is America’s commando unit,” Nicole Mayer of Boca Raton, Fla., said, echoing the perspective of many at the AIPAC conference.

“Israel goes in, accepts a lot of criticism and does what it has to do, so America doesn’t have to get its hands dirty.”

Support by American pro-Israel activists for the Bush administration appears steadfast.

He is repeatedly characterized as the most pro-Israel president ever, both for his tackling of the terrorism issue and his refusal to meet with Arafat.

Yet, there is still a belief that the U.S.-Israeli partnership cannot be overemphasized, even when there is a friend in the White House.

AIPAC has proposed several pieces of legislation in the past two weeks, in an effort to demonstrate the vast support for Israel in Congress and to thwart any administration attempts to placate the Palestinians.

In an address to AIPAC on Monday, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, went out of his way to express the Bush administration’s solidarity with Israel, even when the two sides are quibbling.

“This administration and this group may not always agree with each other,” Card said. “But our differences are the difference of true friends. Friends who share the same values and same dreams.”

The strategy of promoting the U.S.-Israel bond is eliciting strong support from Jewish activists across the political spectrum, as evidenced by an unusually cohesive meeting of AIPAC’s executive committee on Sunday.

As the group crafted AIPAC’s action agenda for the year, the normal bickering between left- and right-leaning advocates was replaced with near consensus for resolutions and amendments.

Debating the terms of a final negotiated settlement with the Palestinians would be fruitless in the wake of suicide attacks, members said.

And as pro-Palestinian protesters stood outside the Washington Hilton on Monday night as the AIPAC banquet was taking place, activists said it was more important to come together based on common beliefs rather than splinter because of differences in details.

“Any group is at its best when it is focused,” said Stacey Burdett, assistant director of government and national affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “There is a heightened sense of focus and a need to put aside any divisions there may be.”

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