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Pro-israel Groups Slow to React to New Bush Push for Palestinians

February 10, 2005
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Like any first-born confronted with the end of only-child status, the pro-Israel community in Washington is learning to deal with the Bush administration’s new baby: a plan for a viable Palestinian state. Many of Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill maintained a sullen silence last week when Congress passed two resolutions essentially welcoming the prospect of Palestinian statehood, and when President Bush almost quintupled aid to the Palestinians in hopes of achieving that state.

Most conspicuous in its silence was the pro-Israel powerhouse, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which issued a tepid commendation of the resolutions — after the fact, and only when reporters asked.

“This is not in AIPAC’s comfort zone,” one senior House staffer said. “Many of us on the Hill think they lost here.”

AIPAC officials say privately that the initiatives are par for the course and that there was little point in opposing them, given their origin in the White House. They would have preferred to wait a month or so to see if new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes good on his pledge to stop terrorism and end anti-Israel incitement — but otherwise, the pro-Israel community is on board, they say.

It might not have a choice. Bush is making renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy. As a result, the man who last year was lauded by many in the Jewish community as the most pro-Israel president in history is marching into uncharted territory, unabashedly advocating a Palestinian state.

“We are working to achieve new successes, particularly in Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday in a keynote policy speech in Paris, where Bush hopes to repair alliances frayed by the Iraq war. “America and Europe both support a two-state solution — an independent and democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Rice had just spent Monday meeting separately with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; on Tuesday, the two declared their intention to end violence. They are each to meet separately with Bush at the White House in the spring.

To be sure, every time Bush or an aide mentions hope for a Palestinian state, it is conditioned on an end to terrorism and the introduction of democratic reforms, items Rice dutifully listed.

Rice also emphasized “the need for Israel to meet its own obligations and make the difficult choices before it,” references to Israel’s pledge to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Many pro-Israel groups, chief among them AIPAC, have become accustomed to extracting the best deal possible for Israel from Congress and the administration, and to encountering profound skepticism about the Palestinians.

That may have hobbled them last week, said Seymour Reich, new president of the Israel Policy Forum and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“I have no doubt that AIPAC’s skepticism of Palestinian efforts in the past has been justified, but AIPAC, like others, has to take another look and give Mahmoud Abbas a chance to encourage him to stop terrorism and to be a full-fledged partner of Sharon,” Reich said. “Things are moving fast. Jewish organizations have to catch up and begin to express support for the initiative.”

AIPAC officials say they helped draft both resolutions.

Reich noted that Israel isn’t exactly opposing the initiatives.

“If anyone needs a signal from Jerusalem, it’s clear that Sharon is not unhappy with the steps the Palestinians have taken. Obviously they could do more, but it’s a very good beginning,” he said.

Americans for Peace Now, which enthusiastically endorsed the congressional resolutions and the proposal for $350 million in aid to the Palestinians, said there was a new game in town.

“This is Bush driving the policy, having a Senate leadership that is willing to allow him to take the lead, and a White House that is capable of overcoming resistance in the House of Representatives, where many are far from supportive of the peace process,” said Lewis Roth, APN’s executive director. “Tremendous changes took place over a couple of days.”

At least one group has pronounced itself loudly in opposition to the initiatives.

“We urge the Bush administration and Congress to stop this folly and stop the funding of the Palestinian Authority terrorist regime until they fulfill their 11-year-old obligations” from the Oslo peace accords, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said in a statement. “This is appeasement of the worst sort.”

The slowness of the pro-Israel response was underscored by how the initiatives unfolded. Insiders say AIPAC did not even attempt to influence the Senate resolution, the product of both parties’ leadership. Attempts by Israel’s most ardent defenders in the House to moderate the language flopped, and it became more pro-Palestinian from draft to draft.

AIPAC’s release “applauding” the resolutions was full of caveats.

“Israel wants peace, but needs a sincere and credible partner to achieve it,” the statement said. “Hopefully, under Mahmoud Abbas the Palestinians will finally break with the Arafat legacy of incitement, corruption, terrorism and hatred, and instead choose peace and a better life for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Bush’s proposal to spend $350 million similarly caught the community off guard.

There had been talk for weeks that Bush would seek to raise the annual $75 million disbursement to the Palestinians to $200 million. No one knew Bush would go as high as $350 million until just hours before his State of the Union speech.

Furthermore, the State Department, which had frozen projects since the October 2003 killing of three Americans riding with a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip, is dipping into about $400 million in preapproved funds, even though the killing hasn’t been solved.

About $40 million of that money will go immediately to infrastructure and education projects. So will much of the $350 million, though $50 million of it is to be set aside for Israel to spend on high-tech transit stations between Israeli and Palestinian areas.

Much of the anxiety arises from how Bush plans to spend the rest. The State Department already has had to quash a report that Rice is raising money for pensions for “retired” terrorists.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whose leaders will be in Israel next week for their annual mission, said it would probe how the money is to be spent.

“We’re going to look at that, at what measures Israel expects of the Palestinians,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman.

Mission members will tour the Gaza Strip to learn about Israel’s security needs once it withdraws from the strip later this year, Hoenlein said.

AIPAC has yet to comment on the financial initiatives. The only Jewish organizations that have unabashedly backed the resolutions and the aid proposals have been those championing greater U.S. engagement in the region: Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

Those groups have been active on the Hill since the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat, the former P.A. president whom Bush and Israel saw as the principle obstacle to peace.

Those organizations “were very prepared and could act quickly and decisively when Arafat died, when Abbas started making positive moves and when Sharon started making moves toward peace,” said Jeremy Rabinovitz, chief of staff for Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who helped push through the House resolution.

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