AIPAC Supporters Hope U.S., Israel Will Put Flap Behind Them

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published March 19, 2010.
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By the time this year’s AIPAC policy conference starts, its organizers – indeed, pretty much the entire Washington village inside a village that calls itself “pro-Israel” – hopes the shouting will be over.

That’s because they want to get back to shouting – about Iran and its nuclear threat, and not last week’s contretemps between Israel and the United States over a building start in eastern Jerusalem announced during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The consensus of the pro-Israel center and right is that the argument is increasingly a distraction and should be set aside. That message was coming through Monday in statements from the unofficial Jewish caucus on Capitol Hill. And by Tuesday night, both sides appeared to be taking the message to heart, with Israel’s ambassador to Washington and the White House denying remarks that have fueled the current Israel-U.S. tensions.

On Tuesday evening, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, issued a statement flatly denying a widely cited Haaretz report claiming that he told fellow diplomats that U.S.-Israeli relations were at a 35-year-low.

“I was flagrantly misquoted about remarks I made in a confidential briefing this past Saturday,” Oren said in a statement. “Recent events do not – I repeat – do not represent the lowest point in the relations between Israel and the United States. Though we differ on certain issues, our discussions are being conducted in an atmosphere of cooperation as befitting long-standing relations between allies. I am confident that we will overcome these differences shortly.”

Separately, numerous media quoted senior White House officials as denying an account in Yediot Achronot last week that Biden had told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel was endangering the lives of American troops in the region.

“He never said that, and there’s no basis to assert that he did,” The Atlantic quoted one official as saying. “What he did say in a meeting with the prime minister and his senior advisers and his own team was that the U.S. is doing a number of things in our national security interest, and in Israel’s national security interest, and they include a strong effort to build a coalition against Iran’s nuclear program; deploying 200,000 troops in conflict areas in the region; standing against efforts to delegitimize Israel in various international bodies, sometimes virtually alone; acting decisively against terrorists in very significant ways; and building probably the strongest defense cooperation relationship with Israel that we’ve seen, including on missile defense.”

The apparent attempts to defuse the situation comes just days before 7,000 pro-Israel activists arrive in Washington for next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, which will culminate with them heading to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the parley’s last day and its lobbying day. he start of the annual AIPAC policy conference.

The activists will lobby for rapid final passage of a bill that would expand unilateral sanctions to target Iran’s energy sector. Both houses of Congress have passed the measure, which now must be reconciled. AIPAC wants the bill to keep its substantial bite; the Obama administration reportedly wants to carve out an exception for China as a means of drawing it into expanded multilateral sanctions.

The Iran piece of the lobbying also will include an appeal to lawmakers to sign on to letters to the Obama administration encouraging its efforts to expand multilateral sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.

Otherwise, the activists will lobby, as they always do, for passage of the foreign aid budget – it includes more than $2.7 billion in assistance for Israel, commensurate with Bush administration policies – and a letter to the administration promoting a close U.S.-Israel relationship and urging direct Israel-Palestinian talks.

That letter was planned before last week’s tough talk, but it couldn’t be more timely. The Netanyahu administration has made clear that it wants to get past its embarrassment, when a planning committee announced a project for 1,600 housing units in eastern Jerusalem just as Biden was in town to express unabating U.S. support for Israel.

“We cannot afford to unravel the delicate fabric of friendship with the United States,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday at a memorial service for late prime ministers and presidents of Israel – the latest in a litany of “mea culpa and let’s move on” statements from Israeli leaders.

It’s not clear, however, whether the Obama administration is ready to move forward. On the one hand, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was back Tuesday to emphasizing the relationship’s deep roots.

“We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security,” she said at a briefing with reporters, according to Reuters. “We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel.”

That set a considerably different tone from last Friday, when her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, appeared intent on sustaining the dispute after Biden had left Israel with a speech that underscored the closeness of the two nations.

Crowley said the United States was still upset with the substance of the announcement of the housing starts, not merely its timing – and Clinton told two major news outlets that the announcement was an “insult.” David Axelrod, Obama’s top political adviser and one of his unofficial liaisons, added “affront” to that vocabulary on Sunday.

Though Clinton’s tone Tuesday was more conciliatory, her reported three conditions for Israel to return to American good graces still stood: a substantive gesture to the Palestinians, a renunciation of the housing starts, and an agreement to include Jerusalem and refugees in the talks. The Palestinian Authority has refused direct talks and, apparently emboldened by the U.S.-Israel rift, now says it will not join indirect talks, as it had promised.

Israel would not likely take all three steps, but it needed to send a signal of its seriousness if it wanted the crisis to end, said David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is among the speakers at the AIPAC conference. He suggested sacking Eli Yishai, the interior minister who is partly responsible for the planning committee that made the announcement.

“It’s important to improve the atmosphere in this crisis,” Makovsky said. “The U.S. step is that they’re not out to repudiate what the vice president said Thursday,” when Biden reaffirmed the U.S.-Israel partnership. “The Israeli step, they should fire Eli Yishai.”

Makovsky added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also should examine why, after promising last November to examine how such planning announcements are made after a similar embarrassment during his meeting in Washington with President Obama, he again was blindsided.

Whether that would happen before Monday, when Clinton and Netanyahu are set to address the AIPAC policy conference – Clinton in the morning, Netanyahu in the evening – is not yet clear. Organizers are hoping to avoid the embarrassment caused by a handul of boos at the 2008 conference when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized the Iraq war during her speech.

It was clear, however, that the organized Jewish community – while loudly pressing the United States to back down – also was sending signals to Netanyahu that he needed to step forward, too.

A statement late Tuesday from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations hit all the conventional notes of the previous week.

The thrust of the statement, from the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel umbrella organization, was that Palestinians must end their recalcitrance, tamp down incitement and recommit to talks was paramount.

However, buried in the lengthy statement was an appeal to “all parties” – unusual for an umbrella body that is at pains to avoid finding fault with Israel.

“The interests of all concerned would best be served by a prompt commencement of the proximity talks that had been previously agreed to by all parties, and all parties should act in a manner that does not undercut such talks,” the statement said. “We urge the United States and Israel to resolve the controversy with the use of language reflecting their historic friendship.”

A string of politicians hammered home a similar message.

“Our countries have weathered temporary diplomatic storms and diversions of every nature and size for more than 60 years,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.). “I am confident that nothing has or will occur that will change that, especially given the stakes for both countries.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who is close to the Zionist Organization of America, was commensurately blunter.

“Israel is a sovereign nation and an ally, not a punching bag,” he said. “Enough already.”

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the Republican minority whip and the sole Jewish Republican in either chamber, said he raised the issue in a call to Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff.

“It’s in the interests of U.S. national security that this administration back off any suggestion there’s been a shift in the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. support for Israel,” Cantor told JTA. “Who’s been the ally here? There’s been one ally who’s stood fast with us in the war against terror, the fight against radical Islam, who’s sent aid to every humanitatian crisis.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who controls the powerful foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, went straight to the Iran question.

“Having just returned from the region, where I urged Arab leaders to support sanctions on Iran and efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, I believe the stakes are too high and the threats are too urgent to allow the unfortunate recent exchange between Israel and the United States to derail ongoing diplomacy,” she said.

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