WASHINGTON – With 5,000 cheering Jewish citizen-lobbyists serving as both an audience and a potential prize, President Bush and Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon engaged in a dramatic round of diplomatic shadow-boxing this week, each seeking to dictate to the other the pace of upcoming Middle East peace moves.
The arena for the sparring was the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the lobbying powerhouse commonly seen as the embodiment of Jewish political clout in Washington. American Jews’ fears for Israel’s security and support for the war on terrorism combined to produce what the organization described as the best-attended conference in its 50-year history.
The Bush administration, eager to the make the most of a friendly audience at a time of declining poll numbers, blanketed the conference with aides and allies, all hammering home the message that Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. The effort culminated in a personal appearance by Bush, only the third by a U.S. president in Aipac’s history. His 40-minute speech, one of his most forceful defenses in weeks of his anti-terrorism policies, won no fewer than 24 standing ovations from the delegates, who interrupted him at one point with an extended chant of “four more years.”
But while most delegates appeared afterward to be basking in the warmth of the president’s words, Israeli officials and ranking pro-Israel strategists were nearly unanimous in pointing to what the president had not said as his real message. “He didn’t repeat the promises he made to Sharon last month about refugees and the 1949 borders,” grumbled one ranking analyst, a former Aipac staffer, referring to Bush’s April announcement at Sharon’s side, rejecting the Palestinian right of return and endorsing Israel’s claim to West Bank settlement blocs. Reiterating the two promises would have given Bush “two guaranteed applause lines, and he chose not to use them,” the analyst said. “That was the message.”
Several senior strategists close to Aipac echoed the complaint.
The other message, said Israeli officials attending the conference, was America’s eagerness, bordering on impatience, to secure Israeli ratification of Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Sharon proposed the plan last winter, but his Likud party rejected it in a May 2 referendum. Bush, in his speech, called the plan “a bold and courageous step.”
Israel’s message, delivered no less pointedly, was: We’re moving, but don’t rush us.
Sharon himself voted with his feet by staying away from the conference altogether. He canceled his scheduled appearance in the wake of his referendum defeat, reportedly because he did not want to face the president. Instead, Sharon’s chief political ally, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, headed a modest-sized Israeli delegation.
Olmert, the keynote speaker at the conference’s gala congressional banquet, made it clear that Sharon was listening to Bush. “Despite recent political setbacks, the prime minister is determined to implement the plan and fulfill his pledge to the president,” Olmert said.
At the same time, Olmert delivered what some listeners described as a veiled warning against administration attempts to pressure Israel. Speaking to an dinner audience that included more than half the members of Congress and much of the Washington diplomatic corps, he repeatedly praised the “bipartisan support” Israel enjoys on Capitol Hill, while saying of Bush only that he was “continuing the long-standing tradition” of White House support for Israel – far from the “best friend” image the administration was promoting.
The implied message, one House Democrat said afterward, was that Israel had its own base in Washington, D.C., and could not be ordered around by the White House.
In order to create an appearance of unity, Aipac officials, in an apparent nod to administration concerns, declined to invite Israeli opponents of the disengagement plan. That prompted protests from hawks within the organization’s own leadership. Only one opponent, former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger, was given a speaking role at a small, closed session.
The speakers’ lineup put Aipac in the unusual position, staffers noted, of encouraging its members to applaud and occasionally cheer for a plan to dismantle Israeli settlements. The role reversal, one observer said, was analogous to Sharon’s recent emergence as the hero of the Israeli left. Sharon received a major boost last week in a mass rally supporting his disengagement plan, by 150,000 doves gathered in the same spot where a 1982 peace rally had excoriated him for his hawkish policies in Lebanon.
The disengagement plan, according to Aipac staffers and Israeli diplomats attending the conference, has emerged within the context of U.S.-Israel relations as part of a widening platform not only of security interests and shared values, but also of a post-9/11 worldview that poses the war on terrorism as the paramount mission of the free world. Allowing the Sharon plan to perish at the hands of a militant minority in Israel would be a “disaster,” one Aipac official said, both because it would destroy the achievement of America adopting an Israeli-made plan and because it would undermine the tightening bond between the two countries.
At the same time, the organization’s executive committee declined to endorse the disengagement plan formally. It also did not call on Aipac members to lobby for the plan during their visits to Capitol Hill.
Aipac officials said it would be inappropriate for the organization to endorse a plan that had not been adopted by the Israeli government.
The Aipac committee did vote, however, to endorse Bush’s April 15 promises to Sharon, which had been incorporated in a letter intended to help Sharon win the Likud referendum. Legislation meant to codify the letter as U.S. policy is now being drafted in the House of Representatives. Both House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer promised delegates during a well-attended session that they would push such legislation. Aipac’s executive incorporated support for the Bush letter into the organization’s 2004-2005 “action agenda.”
The committee voted down an amendment that would have acknowledged the letter was granted to Sharon “in exchange for the evacuation of settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and the fulfillment of Israeli commitments regarding settlement outposts, settlement construction and placement of roadblocks in Palestinian population areas.”
The notion of a philosophical partnership in fighting terrorism was front and center in the conference. President Bush, while talking about the similarities between America and Israel and their war on terrorism, said that “every terrorist is at war with civilization.” DeLay appeared to electrify the crowed by stating that Israel and America “are bound by our common determination to never again allow the cruelty of the few to subjugate the liberty of the many,” and by vowing, “We will never give up; we will never relent; we will never stop; not until the last terrorist on earth is in a cell or a cemetery.”
Another central theme of the conference was the joint efforts that the U.S. and Israel are making toward fighting antisemitism in Europe.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).