WASHINGTON — Despite fears of discord, Israel’s prime minister received a rousing show of support Tuesday when he presented his Gaza disengagement plan to a cheering crowd of some 5,000 of America’s most influential pro-Israel activists at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
For months communal insiders had questioned whether Prime Minister Sharon could secure a clear-cut, unambiguous show of support from key American Jewish organizations, which frequently are said by critics to tack rightward in Middle East policy to avoid alienating their most militant activists. Opponents of Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank had vowed to mobilize opposition during his visit here, setting the stage for a rare confrontation between Israel’s leader and its most vocal American supporters.
In the end, however, the rousing applause the prime minister received at Aipac’s annual policy conference this week, and the tiny number of hecklers he faced, both here and at an earlier public gathering in New York, provided clear evidence that the Israeli leader has the solid backing of mainstream American Jewry and its most influential advocacy organizations.
Sharon, in a speech that his aides said was targeted as much at the White House as at the Aipac delegates, offered an upbeat view of prospects for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation that contrasted sharply with his tone at home in recent days.
“Israel does not intend to lose this opportunity,” Sharon told the cheering crowd. “We will do our utmost to cooperate with the new Palestinian leadership, and we will take the needed measures to help Chairman Abbas.” Among the measures he offered were the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners promised in an agreement last year.
Just days earlier, Sharon had spoken dismissively of the Palestinian leadeship, telling a Yediot Aharonot interviewer that their promises could not be trusted.
In keeping with the upbeat tone, Aipac members gave a warm reception to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who appeared a day before Sharon and took the occasion to urge Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians. Israel, she said, should “take no actions that prejudice a final settlement or jeopardize the true viability of the Palestinian state,” and should help “create the conditions for the emergence” of a democratic Palestinian state.
Rice made it clear in her speech that the Bush administration was determined to support Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely distrusted by Israeli leaders and their supporters in Aipac and other Jewish advocacy groups. Bush and Abbas were to meet Thursday at the White House. Abbas was expected to meet Thursday with Jewish leaders.
“President Abbas is committed to both freedom and security, and President Bush has offered his hand in friendship, just as he promised he would,” Rice said. “In three days, when they meet together here in Washington, they will build a relationship that is one that is based od faith that only democratic leaders can bring.”
Outside the ballroom where the leaders spoke, Aipac staffers mounted a major effort to educate their members on the benefits of the disengagement, a dramatic plan to withdraw troops and settlements unilaterally from swaths of Palestinian territory, reversing years of Israeli policy.
The educational efforts included an Aipac-produced video unveiled at the conference that, while addressing the security and the humanitarian challenges of disengagement, attempted to show that the risks and sacrifices were worth it. In an appearance of balance, Aipac offered a platform during the conference to spokesmen from the settlements, but the settlers picked were two residents of the Gush Katif bloc in Gaza, Micha and Kochi Revivo who expressed willingness to be evacuated peacefully, a sharp contrast to the vehement opposition expressed by most settler leaders. The husband and wife said that they are willing to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of Israel’s collective security and peace by uprooting their home and family. Another pro-disengagement speaker was Liat Sade, a special adviser to the Israeli government on the humanitarian dimension of the disengagement and the daughter of settlers who moved from Sinai to Israel when Israel withdrew from the territory in 1982 in accordance with the peace agreement with Egypt.
The supportive atmosphere marked a sharp departure from last year’s conference, which was held shortly after Sharon failed in an initial bid to win support for the pullout from his own Likud Party. Aipac’s executive committee decided at the time that it could not endorse the plan, since it was opposed by Israel’s ruling party, nor could they instruct delegates to lobby for it during visits to Capitol Hill. A lot has happened in the intervening year, however: Sharon won support for the pullout in the Knesset and in his Cabinet; the death of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, reviled by the United States and Israel, led to the election of the more moderate Abbas; and President Bush was re-elected and began vigorously exercising American influence in the Middle East in his second term.
During the course of the three-day conference, speakers at panel sessions and small group discussions voiced skepticism over Abbas’s ability to lead his people toward a stable Palestinian state. In visits to Capitol Hill, Aipac delegates called on lawmakers to sign a letter to Bush asking that he ensure that the Palestinian leader adhere to his commitments to pursue peace and fight terrorism. Overall, however, the atmosphere at the conference regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts was upbeat.
This air of hope stood in stark contrast to the alarm that speakers and staffers at the conference expressed regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Aipac staffers led delegates through an elaborate exhibition of Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons production line. During meetings with 99 senators and 350 House members on Capitol Hill, Aipac delegates urged lawmakers to support the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would tighten American sanctions imposed on foreign companies that do business in Iran. More than 200 members of the House, nearly half the body, have already signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Aipac delegates also worked to generate support for the additional financial aid that Israel is expected to request shortly to develop its northern and southern periphery. Jerusalem could end up requesting as much as $1.6 billion for the development of the Galilee and the Negev, according to Israeli officials.
In a sign of the solid alignment between major Jewish groups and the Bush administration on broad strategic visions, Aipac officials spoke passionately about recent signs of emergent democracy in the Arab world. “For years, for decades, we have been thinking about the need for change in the Middle East,” Aipac executive director Howard Kohr told the delegates. “Today that change has come. There is a revolution going on in the Middle East.” Much of the credit, Kohr said, went to “American leadership.”
Rice was enthusiastically applauded when she told Aipac delegates that the president is unyielding in his resolve to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East and that he views democracy as a precondition for peace. “America and Israel had tried before to gain peace where democracy did not exist, and we are not going down that road again,” she said.
Rice condemned critics — calling them cynics — who dismissed Bush’s vision of spreading democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Recent weeks prove Bush’s vision is possible, she said. To underscore the point, she quoted a phrase from Theodor Herzl that became the motto of the Zionist movement: ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’