New Labor government poses challenge for pro-Israel lobby
This weekend’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference will feature all the usual elements of the annual pro-Israel extravaganza: congressional and administration machers by the score, foreign diplomats, on-the-make politicians and more than 900 charged-up AIPACers and 600 college students.
But the mood may be dampened by a new challenge facing the powerful lobby group: how to adjust to a new Labor government in Israel that includes officials who have harshly criticized AIPAC for a pro-Likud tilt.
Recently, supporters of incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak complained that AIPAC’s invitation to defeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the gathering was just one more example of the group’s political bias. At the time, they anticipated a June 1 runoff, which would have put Netanyahu’s AIPAC
speech right in the middle of the most intense period of campaigning.
AIPAC officials countered by restating old organization policy: only sitting prime ministers, and not opposition leaders, are invited to speak at the conference.
Now, with Barak the winner, the group is stretching that principle. Shortly after the polls closed on Monday, the victorious candidate was invited to speak and AIPAC let it be known that Netanyahu was no longer on the roster.
“As of today, we now have a prime minister-elect,” said Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director, on Monday. “So an invitation has been sent to Gen. Barak.”
Kohr said it was not clear if Barak would accept. If he does, he will address the group via a satellite television hookup. A Barak aide said “he’s not thinking of it right now. He’s not particularly anxious to make nice to AIPAC — and he’s not anxious for a confrontation. It’s just not on his screen.”
But another Labor source said that despite some initial sniping, he expects the new government and the pro-Israel lobby group to kiss and make up because AIPAC, with its political network in every congressional district, will be needed when the peace process resumes and new strains surface in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Lobbying Group With Singular Voice
The AIPACers also face a new lobbying environment in which other, more narrowly focused groups are weighing in aggressively on Capitol Hill — often with views that differ sharply from those of AIPAC and the government in Jerusalem.
In the past year the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a group that focuses specifically on building support for the peace process, has intensified its Capitol Hill efforts. The group has worked closely with Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), now the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. IPF’s staff and lay leadership cadres are top-heavy with former AIPACers.
“A lot has changed since Madrid and Oslo, and IPF’s message on the Hill reflects that,” said the group’s Washington director, Thomas Smerling. “Active U.S. facilitation is essential to the process. The administration needs flexibility to adapt its role as needed to keep things moving.”
IPF supporters claim AIPAC has worked with congressional Republicans to limit the administration’s Mideast flexibility — a key reason for the group’s heightened congressional profile.
“We saw a need for an explicitly pro-peace process presence on Capitol Hill that focuses narrowly on this one aspect of U.S.-Israel relations,” said Smerling, who emphasized that his group supports AIPAC’s work on a range of issues, including foreign aid and strategic cooperation.
IPF’s narrow focus and its sharpened message have worked — to a degree. Congressional staffers say the group has expanded its Capitol Hill outreach, and that its message is increasingly well presented. The group is also beginning to tap a nationwide network of campaign contributors to leverage their power with the administration and Congress.
But IPF can’t begin to match AIPAC’s breadth of contacts, or its political network around the country, observers say; the group may serve to prod AIPAC. But it is unlikely to replace AIPAC as a central address for pro-Israel lobbying.
AIPAC is also being pressed from the right, where the Zionist Organization of America has developed a small network of contacts with mostly Republican legislators opposed to U.S. efforts in the Mideast negotiations.
Kohr, the AIPAC director, agreed that “when any lobbying group speaks with a singular voice, it is stronger. When there are many voices, it sends confusing messages. But this is not a new phenomenon. As long as I’ve been in Washington, there have been dissonant voices not happy with the duly elected governments’ positions on you-pick-your-issue. That’s part of being Jewish today.”
Also on the roster for the AIPAC power-fest: Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval, who resigned Tuesday, the first casualty of the new Barak government.
Even if Ehud Barak does not address the AIPAC delegates, his successful “One Israel” list will be represented by Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami. House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Il.) will speak to the group on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday in what will be his first major foreign policy address, along with Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
A “strategic showroom” will feature models of the high-tech weapons Israel is developing in partnership with the Pentagon.
King Wows Washington
Jordan’s new King Abdullah wowed Capitol Hill and administration audiences this week in his first visit as monarch.
Abdullah came in part to introduce himself to U.S. policymakers and interest groups, in part to press the case for more economic aid and more help in winning international forgiveness for Jordan’s massive debt.
“Everybody has been tremendously impressed,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He received very strong indications of support from congressional leaders, and the president promised to push the debt issue with the Europeans.”
In a session with leaders of a handful of Jewish groups, the king stressed his optimism about the resumption of Mideast peace talks in the wake of Monday’s election of Labor leader Ehud Barak.
In fact, the polls had just closed in Israel as the Jewish leaders were ushered into the Blair House mansion across from the White House, where the king was staying.
“He was surprisingly upbeat about the prospect of a breakthrough in the negotiations with Syria,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “He was warm, friendly and very deft. He said all the right things.”
Abdullah recently met with Syrian president Hafez Assad, a diplomatic overture that worried some administration officials.
During his U.S. visit, Abdullah said that Jordan and other states in the region need to be supportive of the new Israeli government as it tries to restart the stalled talks with the Palestinians and Syrians.
The king praised the Clinton administration for its efforts on behalf of debt forgiveness and said that he had a “surprisingly good” reaction from Germany, England and Canada to his plea for an economic boost.
Abdullah began his week with a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a Tuesday session with President Bill Clinton that one observer described as “ecstatic” because of the election results in Israel.
His itinerary also included numerous members of congress, congressional committees, cabinet officials and interest groups.
Taking Up Old Church-State Case?
Orthodox activists are watching with lively interest as the Supreme Court considers whether to take a 12-year-old case that could affect longstanding programs that help private and parochial schools.
The Title 6 program, which provides funds for library books, computers and other educational equipment for parochial schools, has “been in existence for a long time,” said Abba Cohen, Washington representative for Agudath Israel of America. “According to a lower court ruling, it is constitutional as long as it is sectarian and not ideological, open to both religious and nonreligious schools and as long as there are safeguards to prevent the money from being diverted for religious purposes.”
The 5th Circuit Court in Louisiana struck down the program as unconstitutional on church-state grounds because of the participation of parochial schools. But a decision by the 9th Circuit Court ruled in the other direction.
Now the Supreme Court is being asked to clarify this legal tangle.
Agudah, a leading advocate on behalf of parochial schools that want to participate more fully in federal programs, is worried that a negative ruling from the Court “would wipe out the program, a host of other programs that serve Jewish schools,” Cohen said.
The Clinton administration has weighed in with support for the program and the “equitable participation of non-public schools,” Cohen said.