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For Aipac Delegates, Clear Goal on Iran, but Mixed Messages on P.A.

March 7, 2006
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The lobbying assignment has never been clearer for the 5,000 or so activists at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference: Stop Hamas and stop Iran. Yet when it comes to the details — particularly relating to the Palestinian Authority — the message gets murkier, and reveals differences between Washington’s pro-Israel lobby and the Bush administration.

AIPAC has never been starker in presenting the threat it believes Israel faces. Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director, suggested the threat had never been as dire since the rise of Nazism.

“The parallels of the geopolitical climate of March 5, 1933 and that of March 5, 2006 are stunning in their likeness, eerie in their implication,” Kohr said Sunday night, addressing the assembled delegates, including about 1,000 students. Hitler became Germany’s chancellor on March 5, 1933.

“Evil men and their regimes must not be given time to grow and strengthen,” Kohr said, as huge images of Hitler and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were displayed on video screens in the conference hall. “We must convince our leaders to take all the necessary actions to fundamentally affect the course of history while there is time.”

The message — that Iran must be stopped before it acquires even more destructive capacity — was repeated by speaker after speaker at the conference.

But a tug of war over presidential discretion between Congress and the Bush administration, together with Israel’s own uncertainties three weeks before its election, contributed to mixed messages as AIPAC activists headed to the Hill on Tuesday in the year’s most impressive lobbying effort.

The activists are touting Senate and House of Representatives versions of the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act” that agree on the broad issue of isolating a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority but differ on key details, especially on whether the president can waive the legislation.

In talking points AIPAC distributed to the delegates, it clearly favors the tougher House version.

The Senate bill, introduced Monday by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority whip, and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), includes a presidential waiver on aid to the Palestinians that Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the sponsors of the House version, had strongly resisted. It also drops bans on representation by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United States.

The differences reflect an emerging White House strategy of sustaining aid to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate, while isolating Hamas in the wake of the terrorist group’s stunning victory in Jan. 25 Palestinian legislative elections. Abbas remains nominally in power as P.A. president, and is tussling with Hamas over his authority. He also retains control over the PLO, the organization that represents Palestinians throughout the world.

The waiver in the Senate version allows President Bush to fund Abbas’ office at Bush’s discretion. The Senate bill leaves in a ban on P.A. representation in the United States, but removes the House version’s ban on PLO representation.

That maintains the status quo, because only the PLO is represented in Washington and the United Nations.

AIPAC talking points for delegates urge lobbyists to campaign against PLO representation on U.S. soil and for congressional restrictions on all U.S. aid to the Palestinians. That put delegates in the confusing position Tuesday of asking senators to vote for a bill, but against some of its key elements.

AIPAC officials said any distinctions between a P.A. and a PLO office were spurious.

“They should not have an embassy here in the United States,” David Gillette, AIPAC’s deputy director of policy and government affairs, said in a session on lobbying issues

McConnell waited until the last minute — just hours before AIPAC’s lobbying blitz — to introduce the legislation, apparently because of last-minute consultations among his office, the White House and AIPAC.

He noted another distinction from the House bill: The Senate legislation continues funding for democracy programs.

“Both Senator Biden and I appreciate the need not to punish the Palestinian people for actions its future government may take,” he said.

Traditionally, Senate legislation more closely reflects the will of the White House, but the fight is hardly over.

Both bills radically restructure the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the United States, setting tough markers for allowing the Palestinian Authority, no matter who’s running it, to reestablish ties with America.

Instead of just showing progress on key issues, for instance, the Palestinian Authority must now prove that it has crushed terrorism and incitement before it reenters the United States’ good graces. It also must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a step further than merely recognizing Israel’s existence.

AIPAC officials and their allies in Congress say the new markers would finally force moderates such as Abbas to confront and defeat extremists, instead of trying to co-opt them — the strategy that allowed Hamas to take power.

The White House is unhappy with the requirements, wanting instead to limit punitive measures to Hamas so that the aid spigot can swiftly be turned on if moderates come to power.

The differences were evident when AIPAC officials openly criticized the White House — a rarity under Bush — saying its insistence that Palestinians go to elections Jan. 25, as Abbas’ Fatah party was imploding, had been a colossal mistake.

“The United States should not have supported elections moving forward with Hamas as a candidate,” Gillette said.

Significantly, Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet prisoner of Zion whose work was cited by Bush in pushing elections forward, agreed. Sharansky, a former Israeli minister who has close ties to AIPAC, chastised the president in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece published Sunday.

“Despite my faith in ‘democracy,’ I was under no illusion that elections should be held immediately,” Sharansky wrote. “Over the previous decade, Palestinian society had become one of the most poisoned and fanatical on Earth.”

Another complicating factor for AIPAC’s Hamas policy is the uncertainty in the weeks before the Israeli elections.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s acting prime minister and the centrist Kadima Party’s candidate, and Amir Peretz, the Labor Party candidate, both echo Bush’s strategy of cultivating moderates while isolating Hamas.

Olmert favors more unilateral withdrawals like the one from the Gaza Strip last year, which Likud Party candidate Benjamin Netanyahu rejects.

In a videolinked speech to AIPAC delegates, Olmert got warm applause when he repudiated Hamas, but stony silence when he said he planned further withdrawals and still hoped for a moderate Palestinian state to emerge in evacuated areas.

“We want the Palestinians to have their own state in contiguous territory,” he said.

By contrast, AIPAC’s push to isolate Iran was a more straightforward sell, with much of the West now united in its determination to stem the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program.

Even there, however, AIPAC backs legislation that would impose wide-ranging sanctions on any investment in Iran’s oil sector. The White House likely would fight against sanctions that would limit Bush’s flexibility in dealing with Iran.

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