Anti-Israel groups have long complained that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of the most powerful groups in Washington, and now it’s official: The current issue of Fortune Magazine rates AIPAC as the second most powerful lobby in the capital. That appeared to delight officials of the pro-Israel lobby group, even though they generally seek to avoid the limelight. In a poll of political activists conducted by a team of Democratic and Republican pollsters, AIPAC was listed as second only to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). AIPAC, which Fortune called “calculatedly quiet,” beat out the AFL-CIO (3), the National Rifle Association (6) and the Christian Coalition (7). But the story touched a raw nerve when it suggested that “three of the top ten organizations [including AIPAC] owe their high rankings to their substantial campaign contributions.” In fact, AIPAC is prohibited from political giving. But Arab-American groups and a group of former State Department employees have charged in court that AIPAC plays a role in determining which politicians get money from other pro-Israel groups and which don’t. An AIPAC spokesperson was the very soul of modesty, attributing the group’s success to “the profound interest Americans have in ensuring strong bonds between the United States and Israel and their willingness to roll up their sleeves and do something about it.” She also said that “the Fortune article demystifies the lobbying process, explaining it in almost textbook clarity and takes away the nefarious edge often connected with this very American way of democratic participation.” Sharon: Warm Reception In D.C. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s star sinks in the administration, Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon’s may be on the rise. Last week, the former general ended his long exile from official Washington with a White House session with National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. High on the agenda were Sharon’s proposals for accelerated final status talks with the Palestinians — a topic that has been much on the minds of the administration’s Middle East team lately — and the administration’s insistence on some visible gestures by the Israelis. Administration and Israeli sources confirm that the meetings went well — and, indeed, that some officials here now see Sharon, once regarded as the ultimate hawk, as a force for moderation and stability within the chaotic Netanyahu government. “The administration was well aware of his role in restoring relations with King Hussein [after the failed attempt to kill a Hamas leader in Amman],” said an Israeli source. “They were very interested in his ideas regarding security and some interim solutions. Here is a guy who has been demonized, but now he’s seen in the administration as someone they can deal with.” Sharon and Berger also discussed last week’s confrontation with Iraq, and Israel’s growing concern with the missile threat posed by Iran. Also last week, Meir Dagan, Netanyahu’s counter-terrorism adviser came to town to challenge the recent State Department action removing Syria from the list of nations supporting international drug trade. Dagan, sources here say, brought reams of evidence that Israeli officials say shows continuing drug cultivation and commerce by Syria. He reportedly told the Americans that the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which is under Syrian control, continues to be a major source of drugs, and that new facilities have been constructed in Syria to enhance that country’s status as a processor of drugs cultivated in other parts of the world. In private, Israeli officials suggest that the State Department decision was made mostly for political and diplomatic reasons. But administration officials continue to argue that their decision was based solely on the fact that Syria had met the minimum requirements for getting off the list, although they say the State Department will continue to monitor the Syrian drug connection closely. Activist Brings Jerusalem Plans To Hill With Washington pushing harder for accelerated Israeli-Palestinian “final status” talks — which will include the explosive question of Jerusalem — a resident of that city brought his call for realism and moderation on the subject to Washington last week. Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who has specialized in issues involving East Jerusalem, told State Department officials and congressional staffers that the only answer is more Palestinian empowerment. “My basic message is that people need to deal with Jerusalem as a real, living, complex city, not as a symbol,” he said. Seidemann agreed that “Jerusalem is indeed the capital of Israel and undivided, and should remain so under all circumstances. But it is also home to 170,000 Palestinians. New ways of engagement have to be found between Israel and these residents.” The rules for Jerusalem, he said, “have been a zero-sum game in which everything is beneficial to Israel, detrimental to the Palestinians.” “We are trying to identify these time bombs before they explode,” he said. “We are looking for ways of empowering the Palestinian population in ways that fall far short of the ‘S’ word of sovereignty.” Seidemann, whose Washington visit was arranged by Americans for Peace Now, said that Israeli public opinion is shifting. “There is a great deal more openness on the Jerusalem question even within the Netanyahu government,” he said. “Within the senior levels of the civil service, we’re starting to see more equatable decision making regarding planning and resources in the city.” He sees less openness on Capitol Hill. “There is a very understandable reluctance to take the lead on these issues before public opinion is prepared for them,” he said. He called for a “Hippocratic oath on Jerusalem — the idea that whatever we do, we should do no harm. We have to recognize that a lot of recent decisions have the ability to do great harm.” But the Netanyahu government apparently wasn’t listening. Early this week the prime minister called for more Jewish building in the city in response to several recent attacks of Jewish seminary students.