WASHINGTON — With fresh signs that the White House is set to release a controversial new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, tension mounted this week among American Jewish activists preparing to gather in Washington for an annual show of political strength.
About 5,000 activists are expected to arrive in Washington Sunday for what is being billed as the largest gathering in the history of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Members of the main pro-Israel lobby are expected to flood Capitol Hill to voice concern about the American-backed “road map” plan, while attempting to avoid the appearance of a direct confrontation with the president.
The lobbying blitz comes as international backers of the road map — sponsored by the so-called Madrid Quartet, consisting of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — are predicting a new push to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In an exclusive interview, U.N. special envoy to the Middle East Terje Roed-Larsen told the Forward that a “window of opportunity” has opened for progress. “At the backdrop to the front lines of war in Iraq, I see emerging front lines of peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Larsen said. (See Page 5 for full story.)
Meanwhile, a day before flying to the United States for talks with Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Tuesday that he was “absolutely determined” to push forward with the peace process.
Such pronouncements from international supporters of the road map have some pro-Israel lobbyists worried that American pressure on Jerusalem is imminent.
“At the moment, everyone is focused on the war in Iraq, but differences over the road map may soon become a very big deal,” said one pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington. “If Israel doesn’t reach clear understandings with the administration over the interpretation of the road map’s text, there may be serious trouble.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was expected to meet in Washington this week with senior U.S. administration officials. Representatives of the diplomatic quartet pushing the road map are set to meet next week to discuss moving the plan map forward.
Although most pro-Israel activists in Washington do not predict a confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington, some say that one is increasingly possible given the wide gap between the text of the road map and positions held by the government of Prime Minister Sharon.
Further fueling anxiety among pro-Israel lobbyists were the conflicting messages from the administration over how it intends to promote the road map. In particular, activists were upset last week over remarks from State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Speaking about the road map at a March 19 briefing, Boucher declared: “The document will be released as the road map; that is the road map, and that will be the road map.” The next day, a State Department official was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that Boucher meant that “we don’t want to leave the impression that Israel has veto power and can renegotiate the road map on their own terms.”
The State Department’s message left many pro-Israel activists seething, since they had assumed that the plan would not be presented as a fait accompli. They based this assumption on Bush’s March 14 speech, in which he said that both sides are welcome to “contribute” to the document after its publication. Jewish activists speculated that the president made the comment to assuage Israeli concerns that publication of the plan would trigger undue pressure on Jerusalem.
Adding to the sense of frustration among pro-Israel activists is their belief — rarely articulated in public — that it would be imprudent to criticize a popular president widely considered to be a strong friend of Jerusalem, particularly at a time when he is leading a war that they support against one of Israel’s most potent Arab enemies. Another factor in the reluctance of Jewish groups to confront Bush on the road map was the president’s decision to include a $10 billion aid package for Israel — $9 billion in loan guarantees and $1 billion in military aid — in the supplemental budget request he submitted to Congress Tuesday.
While Aipac leaders are expected to avoid any public criticisms of the administration, they will send thousands of members to Capitol Hill April 1 to lobby for legislation that will codify a stringent interpretation of Bush’s Middle East speech of June 24, 2002, which is generally understood to require more from the Palestinians than the road map demands. The proposed legislation would demand Palestinian security reforms as a condition for America’s support of Palestinian statehood.
Since the first draft of the road map was submitted to Israel and the Palestinians on September 14, 2002, Sharon and his government have been working to postpone official publication of the plan and seek fundamental changes in its content. Two subsequent drafts took into account some of Israel’s misgivings.
Prominent pro-Israel activists said that the White House plans to publicize the road map upon the confirmation of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister, probably within the next two weeks. Also, they said, the administration will discourage both parties from attempting to renegotiate the document.
Asked about the current situation, one pro-Israel activist said: “From now on, the name of the game is damage control, which means securing American assurances to Israeli interpretations of what is often an intentionally vague text.”
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, told the Forward that this is a case where constructive ambiguity is not in Israel’s interest. “If in fact there continue to be a lot of vague terms open for interpretation, then we should all be concerned about it,” he said.
The main potential source of contention between Israel and the administration, pro-Israel activists said, is the role of the European Union, U.N. and Russia in supervising or refereeing the implementation of the road map. Israel and its allies fear the three partners would be lax in scrutinizing Palestinian compliance with the plan.
“We are particularly concerned that the Bush administration would over-compensate for its unilateral conduct on the Iraq war by conceding too much power to members of the quartet on the road map,” said a veteran activist with an American Jewish organization.
Most pro-Israel activists were predicting that the organized Jewish community would not confront the president unless Israel’s government decides that the road map poses a threat to its national security, and merits an all-out campaign to stop it. Israeli sources in Washington this week predicted that Sharon would successfully attempt to avoid such a confrontation.
Officials in Sharon’s office were quoted by Ha’aretz Tuesday, disavowing an alternative to the road map being drafted by the Israeli National Security Council at the request of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Sharon aides insisted that he was dedicated to working with Bush.
If Sharon does, however, opt for a confrontation, several observers predicted he would be met with significant resistance, even within the organized Jewish community.
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, warned that any attempts by Jewish groups to “undermine American policy on the road map” would spark strong opposition in many quarters of the community. “It will be a struggle for the future of this whole community,” he said.