The Bush administration is calling out the heavy hitters to convince the American Jewish community that it won’t ignore Israel’s concerns as it mounts a renewed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Five Bush administration officials addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference this week, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Some Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish leaders have worried that the Bush administration will pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to shore up international support for its war against Iraq or to “pay back” Arab states that have supported, or at least tolerated, the war.
At issue is whether both Israel and the Palestinians are expected to move forward simultaneously — or whether Israel will be pressed to make concessions only after the Palestinians have shown that they are serious about ending terrorism and moving toward peace.
In a landmark policy speech last June 24, President Bush expressed support for a future Palestinian state — but only after an end to violence against Israel, a change in Palestinian leadership and significant reforms in Palestinian governance.
In contrast, America’s partners in the diplomatic Quartet that authored the “road map” toward peace — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — expect both sides to make simultaneous concessions. Current drafts of the plan envision a simultaneous process.
The goal of the speakers at the AIPAC conference was to show that the administration stands behind Bush’s original vision, and they repeatedly invoked the June 24 speech.
“The road map is not an edict, it is not a treaty,” Powell told the conference on Sunday, which drew some 5,000 activists from around the country.
“It is a statement of the broad steps we believe Israel and the Palestinians must take to achieve President Bush’s vision of hope and the dream that we all have for peace.”
However, both Powell and Rice stressed that while the administration welcomed Israel’s comments on the plan, it would not countenance major changes.
Though Bush is very popular among supporters of Israel, some prominent Jewish organizational officials said they left the sessions concerned about where the administration was headed.
And AIPAC is leaving nothing to chance: The group is lobbying Congress to pressure the White House to stick to the June 24 parameters.
The administration has been sending mixed signals on the issue in recent weeks.
Acknowledging that the road map was controversial in the Jewish community, Rice told AIPAC participants Monday that the White House “welcomed comments” from Israel and the Palestinians, but she said that “it is not a matter of renegotiating the road map,” according to Jewish officials at the session, which was closed to the media.
The speakers also made clear that the administration would demand that Israel ease restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population as part of Israel’s anti-terror operations, and freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel and some of its American allies have been concerned that the road map will deviate from the president’s vision, and that the plan — which does not clearly demand an end to terror before negotiations began and Israeli makes concessions — will be adopted by a U.S. government that seeks European and Arab support for its policies elsewhere in the Middle East.
Those concerns were heightened last month, just days before U.S. forces attacked Iraq, when Bush announced that he would distribute the road map to the Israelis and Palestinians after the Palestinian Authority prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, is confirmed with “real authority.”
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has major concerns about the road map, and has hoped to alter it.
The Palestinians, recognizing that the last draft of the road map is more favorable to them than the Bush speech was, do not want to allow changes.
Both Powell and Rice quoted Bush’s call for Israel to freeze all settlement building as the Palestinians make progress towards peace, an ambiguous phrasing that the two sides may interpret differently.
Israel hopes to allow for “natural growth” of existing settlements, which critics say is a ploy to continue building settlements.
When Powell on Sunday called settlement building “inconsistent with President Bush’s two-state vision,” he received applause and a smattering of boos.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who also addressed the conference Sunday night, met Monday with Powell, Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Bush attended virtually the entire meeting with Rice, senior Israeli officials said.
Shalom’s meetings touched on U.S. military efforts in western Iraq to ensure that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is not able to launch missiles against Israel.
Though allied forces say they have had success in ensuring that Iraq can’t attack Israel, Shalom said the Jewish state’s high alert will remain in force for at least another week or two.
The bulk of Shalom’s meetings with U.S. officials apparently dealt with the road map, however.
Shalom told reporters here Monday that there is a “great understanding” between Israel and the United States on how to proceed on the Palestinian track, along the lines of Bush’s June 24 speech. He dismissed questions suggesting that U.S. criticism of Israeli settlements had grown unusually harsh.
“If you check U.S. administrations in past decades, you’ll find that their opposition to settlements was very similar,” Shalom said. The current criticism “is not something that hasn’t been said in the past.”
One Israeli official sought to square the circle by noting that while the United States will demand Palestinian action first, the time frame for Israel to respond with concessions of its own may be so compressed that for all intents and purposes the two sides will be acting simultaneously.
Meanwhile, AIPAC is working to shore up its position on Capitol Hill.
AIPAC delegates lobbied lawmakers to sign onto letters urging the president to stick to the language of his speech and resist international pressure to “short-circuit the process.”
“We are concerned that certain nations or groups, if given a meaningful role in monitoring progress made on the ground, might only lessen the chances of moving forward on a realistic path towards peace.”
Lawmakers will be hearing this week from many Jews who support the letters.
Such sentiments aren’t universal in the Jewish community, however.
Several Jewish groups say AIPAC is using a delaying tactic in hopes of scuttling the road map altogether. These groups support the road map and want it to be imposed immediately.
“The approach AIPAC is supporting is an approach we’ve tried for two years, and it has never worked,” said M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.
“Anyone who wants the peace process to succeed is supporting the road map.”
Stressing its support for the road map in front of the AIPAC audience showed how serious the Bush administration is taking the issue, Rosenberg said.
Israeli Labor Party legislator Colette Avital also said AIPAC and Sharon would try to delay the road map.
“They’re going to do everything in their power to postpone, to change, to turn this plan into an entirely dead story,” said Avital, who also spoke at the policy conference. “Many people in AIPAC have similar attitudes to the prime minister.”
Avital praised the road map, saying it puts the onus on the Palestinians to reform before requiring Israeli concessions.
“Israel and AIPAC want 120 percent performance,” she said, “something which, even if the Palestinians want, they are incapable of.”
AIPAC officials dismissed the criticism.
“Those who suggest that AIPAC opposes the road map that implements the vision laid out by President Bush on June 24 are wrong,” said Rebecca Needler, AIPAC’s spokeswoman.
She said that there are several interpretations of the road map, and that AIPAC is pushing for the one that closely resembles Bush’s speech and Sharon’s policy.
In addition to the road map, AIPAC is pushing Congress to pass a supplemental war spending bill that includes $1 billion in military aid for Israel and $9 billion in loan guarantees.
Support for the money is strong on Capitol Hill, and AIPAC is working to ensure that the money is not made contingent on Israeli actions such as a settlement freeze, as some Arab American and dovish Jewish groups have called for.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.