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War in Iraq Timing of Aipac Conference Raises Concerns of How to Frame Message

March 24, 2003
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For months, Jewish groups have been working tirelessly to separate the Iraq issue from Israel, lowering their voices of support for the war.

But next week, close to 5,000 pro-Israel activists — many of whom strongly support the U.S.-led war on Iraq and its benefits to Israel’s security — will meet in the nation’s capital for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It’s likely that they won’t want to keep quiet any longer. But the fact that the March 30-April 1 conference is taking place in wartime presents uncomfortable dilemmas about how to discuss aspects of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy.

“I believe that we don’t have to choose between being pro-Israel and being a patriotic American,” said Amy Friedkin, AIPAC’s president.

In a perfect world, AIPAC would highlight the role Israel has played in U.S. efforts against Iraq, and the job the United States has done to protect Israel from possible attacks from Baghdad.

In the real world, however, the United States has tried to downplay Israel’s role — even keeping it off the list of countries in its “coalition of the willing” — to prevent a potential backlash from the Arab world.

Some figures have suggested that American Jews, and especially Jewish neoconservatives in the Bush administration, were pushing the country toward war.

As a result, many in the Jewish world have been trying to keep their support for the Bush administration’s agenda, in Iraq and in Israel, to a whisper.

“The war inhibits your desire to want to trumpet the relationship at a time when the United States and Israel are downplaying it,” said Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC.

But conference attendees “can highlight common values and common issues,”

he said.

There also are questions as to how AIPAC will express its concerns about some aspects of administration policy.

There are grave fears in the American Jewish world about the White House’s postwar plans, given Bush’s recent announcement that he will present the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace following confirmation of the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, which is expected shortly.

According to some reports, however, presentation of the road map may be delayed until after the end of the war in Iraq

Many in the Jewish community are concerned about the participation of the United States’ partners in the diplomatic “Quartet” that drafted the plan

— the United Nations, European Union and Russia — who are seen as biased toward the Palestinians.

In addition, they feel the road map places too much pressure on Israel to make concessions without preliminary, reciprocal or irrevocable steps by the Palestinians.

But it’s unclear how much criticism can be voiced, given the “rally around the flag” mentality at the AIPAC summit.

“There’s a fine line for the community to be walking right now,” one Jewish official said.

Participants at the conference will need to find a way to praise the U.S.-Israel relationship while noting that it is not the impetus for the war.

They also are expected to support the president’s plans to further postwar democracy in the Middle East — while criticizing the linkage between the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Plans for the conference are fluid, as it’s unclear whether it will be held in the midst of war or at the beginning stages of regime change.

Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is confirmed to speak, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has been invited. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will represent Israel.

One topic on the agenda is clear: AIPAC wants to encourage congressional approval of the $1 billion in military aid and $9 billion in loan guarantees for Israel that the White House is expected to propose in coming days, part of a supplemental spending bill related to the Iraq war that may reach $100 billion.

Extra aid to Israel could be problematic in the midst of war, tax cuts and a deficit, but the pro-Israel lobby has been encouraged in recent weeks by bipartisan calls of support from congressional leaders.

Israel had been seeking $4 billion in military aid, but was given only a quarter of the amount. Friedkin said that AIPAC will lobby for whatever package the Bush administration and Israel agree to.

The other priority will be to make sure that the president’s engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects his landmark speech of last June 24, which differs in some respects from drafts of the road map.

Jewish leaders had been heartened by the White House’s reluctance to embrace the road map over the past few months, repeatedly delaying its implementation at Israel’s request.

They were caught off guard earlier this month when, during U.S. attempts to build international support for the war on Iraq, Bush announced he would present the road map after a Palestinian prime minister “with real authority” takes office.

Jewish leaders were encouraged by Bush’s indication that the exact contents of the road map were still up for debate. In the days that followed, however, the administration has flip-flopped on that issue.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said March 19 that the road map was nonnegotiable, while other State Department and National Security Council officials have said otherwise.

AIPAC has called repeatedly for congressional legislation that codifies Bush’s June 24 speech — in which he called for an interim Palestinian state, but only after a complete cessation of violence against Israel and the replacement of the Palestinian Authority leadership.

AIPAC has convinced lawmakers to offer such legislation and place it inside spending bills. The theory is that legislation that holds Bush to the parameters of his June speech could offset the influence of the road map.

“We will be lobbying for support for the road map that implements the president’s June 24th vision,” Friedkin said.

AIPAC also will push for support of legislation that pressures Syria to cut its ties with terrorist groups.

But no matter what is on AIPAC’s agenda, the war in Iraq will be the elephant in the room.

“I don’t think there will be that much talk about the road map,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC. “Unless the war is over by then, everything will be focused on the war.”

Friedkin says she does not believe security concerns will hurt attendance.

She says AIPAC has stressed to attendees that there will be a strong law enforcement presence at the event.

She also says the war will not alter speakers’ messages.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the conference is likely to attract the scorn of “bigots,” but in fact it will be a sign that Jewish groups are acting as normal — including attending a regularly-scheduled conference.

“There was no need for Jews to get ahead of the curve” on Iraq, speaking out before the White House decided whether to go to war, Foxman said. But now that the United States has invaded Iraq, it is appropriate for the Jewish world to support it, he said.

Friedkin said that holding the policy conference during the war is, in some ways, an advantage: A major discussion of Mideast issues is likely to attract media attention, which could highlight the other parts of AIPAC’s agenda.

“We are very aware that we are at war,” Friedkin said. “While we are celebrating the relationship of the United States and Israel, we need to support American troops and support the efforts for democracy to be built in the Middle East.”

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