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The invited speakers were a diverse bunch, ranging from the iconic Israeli peace activist Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo peace accords, to deputy Knesset speaker Danny Danon, a fiery Likud hardliner, and Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority official. Also on the bill were former State Department negotiator Aaron David Miller, far-right Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick and West Bank settler leader Rabbi Benny Elon, who was, it transpired, the event’s main moving force.
As it turned out, most of the morning consisted of attacks on the troubled peace accords as misguided and doomed. These were coupled with denunciations of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian compromise — it’s official U.S. and Israeli policy, but Glick and Danon both insist “nobody” believes in it — and calls for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Miller danced around the question: He agreed Oslo was a failure, but said compromise was essential, even if unachievable anytime soon.
Only Beilin and al-Omari offered full-throated endorsements of a two-state peace. But they were there as window dressing, and they knew it. Both accepted the invitation expecting a right-wing crowd, hoping only to win a few converts.
The program was oddly punctuated by visits from the lawmakers who were the event’s hosts: veteran Jewish Democrat Eliot Engel of New York, who co-chairs the Israel Allies Caucus, and fellow Jewish Democrat Brad Sherman of Los Angeles. Each took a moment to deliver greetings, praise Israel’s commitment to peace and willingness to compromise and denounce Arab intransigence — and then danced off stage, clueless as to what was transpiring in their names.
The actual organizer of the event was an off-campus entity, the International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation, which claims parliamentary affiliates in 19 capitals including Washington. Its founder and chairman is Elon, a longtime fixture on Israel’s far right. He served three terms in the Knesset as leader of the Moledet party, which advocates Israeli annexation of the territories and “voluntary” transfer of Palestinian Arabs to neighboring countries. He served a stint in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet but quit in 2004 to protest the planned withdrawal from Gaza.
Today Elon favors letting the Palestinians stay in their homes but annexing the land under them and giving them extraterritorial Jordanian citizenship. He formed the international allies group as an outgrowth of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, which he spearheaded in 2004 with the help of prominent American Christian conservatives. The American sister caucus has 29 members, 22 Republican and seven Democratic.
It’s not clear how many of the 29 lawmakers know of their Elon affiliation. Sherman says there isn’t one. “I am a member of an organization that is limited to members of the United States Congress,” he told me during a quick chat in the hallway. “This event is a congressional forum, in a room reserved by members of Congress, in a building owned by the U.S. Congress, to hear from diverse points of view. It is not an endorsement of any organization.”
With that Sherman went back to work. Back inside the meeting room, Elon was summing up. He urged the assembled to work with the “millions of Americans who share our values” and thanked them for coming.
It seems like a common complaint: How does a congressman avoid getting profiled?
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org