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Aipac Shelves Major Lobbying Effort After Likud Voters Nix Sharon’s Plan

WASHINGTON — In the first clear sign of damage to Prime Minister Sharon’s standing here following the Likud Party’s repudiation of his Gaza disengagement plan, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse Aipac has shelved plans for a major advocacy blitz on his behalf.

Sources inside the American Israel Public Action Committee say the organization is postponing plans to seek congressional codification of the far-reaching assurances Sharon received from President Bush last month on Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees. Bush offered the assurances in response to Sharon’s plan to dismantle 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank. Despite the president’s assurances, Sharon’s party voted to reject the plan.

“There is simply no way Aipac can go to congressional leaders and with a straight face ask for sponsorship or support for codifying the language in Bush’s letter,” said a pro-Israel activist in Washington. “You talk to people in Congress about it, and they roll their eyes.”

Sharon’s plan was rejected by about 60% of the voters in Sunday’s Likud-only referendum — a stinging humiliation for a leader seen as firmly in command of his own party.

The defeat was also an embarrassment for Bush, who had strained ties with Arab and European allies by stating in a letter to Sharon that Israel would not be expected to relinquish all of the territories captured in 1967 or to open its doors to Palestinian refugees. Now the administration is viewed as having paid a high price for goods not delivered, administration sources said.

In addition, Sharon’s defeat has befuddled pro-Israel activists and Jewish organizational leaders, who have grown accustomed to viewing the Israeli prime minister as an invincible rainmaker. Privately Jewish organizational officials are expressing deep disappointment with Sharon and voicing concern about his standing in the eyes of the Bush administration.

“Of course we’re backing Sharon, but this is an unbelievable fiasco,” said an official at a major Jewish organization.

The immediate impact in Washington appears to be Aipac’s decision to abandon its lobbying push. For the past two weeks, in advance of the organization’s major policy conference later this month, Aipac lobbyists were preparing draft legislation codifying Bush’s assurances and trying to line-up sponsors. Now those efforts have been put on hold. “This will evolve as events in Israel evolve,” said a spokesman for the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Sharon flip-flopped Tuesday on whether he would go through with plans to visit Washington, attend the Aipac conference and meet with Bush later this month. At first Sharon indicated that he had canceled his planned trip to Washington, but hours later issuing a statement saying that he would stick to his plan.

Many Jewish groups also seemed confused. Even organizations, including Aipac and the Anti-Defamation League, that defended Sharon’s plan, opted not to issue statements in response to the referendum. When asked to react publicly to the election results, Jewish organizational leaders replied with variations of “Let’s wait and see.” Behind the scenes, however, several of them questioned Sharon’s judgment in opting for a Likud referendum, rather than a national vote, and criticized him for not lobbying harder to secure a victory at the polls.

Several groups opposed to Sharon’s plan, including Americans For a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, hailed the referendum results.

Sharon’s opponents launched an all-out, well-organized grassroots campaign, financed largely by hawkish American Jews. Sharon, on the other hand, relied on the power of his bully pulpit, making statements to the media in which he warned of the severe repercussions of rejecting the plan.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said that the result of the Likud vote “may have hurt Sharon with the administration.” Yoffie explained that Sharon “negotiated, he made a deal, he was supposed to deliver. In return the president expended a great deal of political capital” — but Sharon ended up not delivering.

“I am worried about that. It’s not good for Israel,” said Yoffie, a self-described dove and peace activist, who two weeks ago published an opinion article in the Forward praising Sharon for his withdrawal plan, calling him “my hero.”

Yoffie said that he still considers Sharon a hero — “He fought a good fight and he’s not backing down,” Yoffie said — but that Sharon must “restore some credibility.”

“It is critical” that Sharon push forward with his plan, Yoffie said. “If you suffer a defeat, you come back and fight the battle again. That’s what leaders who put the national security interest of their countries first do.”

Despite their worries, Jewish communal leaders were encouraged by the mild public reaction of the Bush administration to Sharon’s defeat. Some administration officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, indicated unhappiness with Sharon’s inability to deliver. But in public statements, senior officials still praised Sharon for his plan, expressed confidence in his commitment to it, and vowed to continue to support it. “It is still our view that [Sharon’s plan] is a courageous step for peace that ought to be supported by the U.S. and the international community,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, during a Tuesday appearance at the ADL’s annual policy conference in Washington.

Secretary of State Colin Powell made a similar statement at a press conference this wek following a meeting in New York with America’s diplomatic partners in the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprising the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, which sponsored the president’s road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The quartet appeared to back away from Bush’s assurances to Sharon, even while praising the Israeli leader’s Gaza plan.

Several Jewish communal officials said that the majority of Israelis support Sharon’s plan. “It would be unfortunate if the minority of Israelis would highjack what is an important opportunity for Israel,” said the outgoing president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen. “The polls indicate that the Israelis would back this by a big majority.”

Rosen said he is confident that the White House will understand that the Likud referendum result is but a “bump in the road, a political skirmish.”

Samuel Lewis, a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum and a former American ambassador to Israel, warned that a scaled-back plan would be less likely to be embraced by the White House. “My guess,” he said, “is that Sharon will probably come back with a somewhat similar plan, and that we will probably support it.”

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