Washington — “You can clap,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the crowd of pro-Israel activists during a rare awkward moment in the otherwise meticulously orchestrated gathering. The Israeli leader was asking the 14,000-strong audience to back his call for Palestinian leadership to move forward with the peace process. “You want to encourage them to do that. I do, and I know you do too.”
Prodded by Netanyahu, members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the call for peace. But the moment made clear that discussing the peace process, even in the context of placing demands on the Palestinians, had taken supporters of the lobby out of their comfort zone.
AIPAC has tried hard to stay above the fray during the debate over the upcoming American brokered framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, at its annual policy conference, which ended yesterday, the peace process placed third on AIPAC’s priority list, far under Iran and even less central than the battle against boycott of Israel.
But the luxury of remaining on the sidelines on this issue is about to end. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to finalize his framework for Israeli–Palestinian peace by the end of the month, and once he does, the lobby could be forced to take sides as disagreements between Israel and the United States emerge concerning the specifics of the U.S. peace initiative.
“They’re tough issues. They’re complicated. But there is a vision of peace, and it takes tough choices on both sides, especially over the coming days,” Kerry told participants of the AIPAC annual conference in his March 3 address. The speech, filled with praise for Netanyahu and with repeated promises to ensure Israel’s security, received a cool response from the audience, much different than the enthusiastic embrace leading lawmakers from both parties got.
Dealing with the Middle East peace process has always been more difficult for the lobby than advocating against a nuclear Iran or for ensuring foreign aid to Israel, AIPAC’s two core issues. The lobby has been involved in the past in legislation aimed at cutting funds to the Palestinian Authority, limiting the work of the PLO mission in Washington, and urging the transfer of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, all viewed as controversial and opposed by the administration. AIPAC has, however, always stepped around the issue of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The step-around has not always been easy. The lobby, for example, joined Israel in rejecting the Palestinian Authority’s insistence that Israel freeze expansion of its settlements in the West Bank as a condition for restarting negotiations. But it has refrained from defending or endorsing expansion of the settlements themselves.
It was not surprising, then, that the Palestinian issue took up only a small part of the agenda at the AIPAC conference. The issue was hardly mentioned on stage and was discussed only in few breakout sessions.
In briefings to activists before sending them off to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill, AIPAC gave very general guidelines on the issue, asking its members to stress Israel’s commitment to peace and the lobby’s gratitude to Kerry’s efforts.
AIPAC set out five key elements in its discussion of the peace process, all of which have to do with general outlines rather than specifics. The lobby is calling on the administration to insist on direct and bilateral talks; to work closely with Israel; to refrain from imposed solutions; to encourage Arab countries to play a supportive role, and to back Palestinian leaders who commit to peace.
Netanyahu, addressing the AIPAC conference, presented much clearer outlines. A peace agreement, according to Netanyahu, should include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and rejection of the Palestinian right of return. It should exclude any deployment of international peacekeepers along the Jordan Valley. The Israeli prime minister also laid out a tough stance on Jerusalem, whose final status it to be determined in the negotiations. He described Jerusalem as the “eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.” The Palestinians, who see it also as the future capital of their own state, are calling for some form of shared sovereignty.
Kerry’s outlines for a peace accord included nuances that diverged from Netanyahu’s. On the Palestinian refugee issue he spoke of a “just and agreed solution.” On Jerusalem, he offered only a vague statement noting the need for a resolution that “finally allows Jerusalem to live up to its name as the City of Peace.”
AIPAC’s action principles, formally adopted by the group in the opening of its three-day conference, tread a thin line on these issues. They do not discuss security arrangements, borders or the refugee issue and speak generally on Jerusalem, expressing support for “global recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” The list also includes support for “global recognition of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.”
Kerry’s framework is expected to be much more detailed, pushing the lobby to takes sharper positions, especially as Israel’s supporters in Congress begin floating legislative ideas opposing some of Kerry’s stands. AIPAC is also expected play a role in making sure that any future deal includes a boost in American foreign aid to Israel.
In his speech to the conference, AIPAC’s president, Bob Cohen, indicated that the lobby is anticipating a bumpy ride once the American plan is presented. “The US-Israel relationship,” he told members of the lobby when discussing the lobby’s position on Kerry’s plan, “rests upon interests that transcend any single issue.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman