Partisan politics of U.S., Israel snake through AIPAC conference

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Farley Weiss sat in his seat at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference and cringed when President Clinton spoke glowingly of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

"His clear endorsement of Peres was outrageous," said Weiss, a pro-Likud activist who lives in Phoenix, Ariz. "Clinton should not be so involved in internal Israeli politics."

Weiss clearly had a minority view of the president's speech.

Clinton received thunderous applause when he followed Peres Sunday night in addressing more than 2,000 AIPAC delegates who had gathered for the pro-Israel lobby's annual conference.

Amid chants of "Four more years!" AIPAC delegates cheered the American and Israeli leaders as they were honored in a "Salute to the Peacemakers" ceremony.

During AIPAC's three-day annual conference, the upcoming elections in Israel and the United States took center stage, especially after Israel and Syria agreed on a Lebanon cease fire.

"Elections are more than just a backdrop," said Morris Amitay, a former AIPAC official and longtime activist who now serves as treasurer of the pro-Israel political action committee Washington PAC. "This year, politics are at the forefront," he said.

A senior AIPAC official, who asked not to be named, agreed. "The timing and proximity of the conference to the elections is on everybody's mind," said the official.

Indeed, many of the event's speakers tailored their remarks to fit the election campaigns in Israel and the United States.

White House officials openly acknowledged that Clinton used the occasion to rally behind Peres. During his Sunday speech, which was peppered with praise for the prime minister, Clinton called Peres "our full partner for peace and security."

He praised Peres' vision of a peaceful Middle East, and just days after his administration brokered a deal for a cease-fire in Lebanon, Clinton reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel's recent actions.

"Make no mistake about it," the president said: The mistaken Israeli bombing April 18 of the U.N. base in southern Lebanon was caused by "the deliberate tactics of Hezbollah in their positioning and firing."

Clinton veered from his prepared text to say, "The tragic misfiring [was] in Israel's legitimate exercise of its right to self-defense."

Clinton's words, Amitay said, show that "Peres can do no wrong in his eyes."

For his part, Peres returned the effusive praise, thanking Clinton for being "a true friend of the state and people of Israel" who "embraced a whole nation when we were in pain."

"You have led the struggle for a better life in our part of the world, and you have succeeded," Peres said.

The mutual admiration was widely noted here.

"It's as if each one is running a campaign for the other," said Rosalie Zalis, a senior policy adviser to California's Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "It's a tango that works for both of them."

The session irked Likud supporters who criticized AIPAC for not inviting Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running against Peres in the upcoming elections.

"AIPAC is inserting itself into the pre-Israeli election by providing Shimon Peres a podium not available to Likud and [Netanyahu] at this critical time," said Yoram Ettinger, who has lobbied for Likud policies on Capitol Hill during the Labor government's tenure.

But AIPAC officials said the group's policy is to invite the sitting prime minister and not the Israeli opposition.

Although Peres received a warm welcome from the AIPAC delegates, sessions throughout the conference revealed a clear split in loyalty among American Jews.

On the domestic front, Clinton used the occasion to try to solidify Jewish votes, a key to his re-election strategy.

Even GOP activists said Clinton glowed in the Jewish spotlight.

"The president knows that this is his constituency. He has been a great president for the Jewish community," Zalis said.

Yet, Zalis added, this year's AIPAC conference was "the most political in recent memory."

November's congressional elections were also clearly on the minds of GOP members of Congress, who have taken strong-Israel stances lately, and AIPAC staffers as they prepared delegates for a day of Capitol Hill lobbying on issues such as foreign aid and sanctions against Iran.

"There's going to be an awful lot of new faces on Capitol Hill next year," an AIPAC official said, about a potential record turnover in Congress. "We can't have complacency in our community."

Keynote speakers at the banquet were Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), the House majority leader, delivered a sharply partisan speech, vowing to use his power to protect Israel's interests.

He also claimed Republican credit for the recently passed anti-terrorism legislation.

Lynn Lyss, former chairwoman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said she was "surprised and somewhat dismayed" by the partisan tone of Armey's speech.

"AIPAC is not the place to split along partisan lines," she said.

Meanwhile, the AIPAC executive committee got so bogged down in debate over a resolution concerning the Palestinian National Council's decision to amend its anti-Israel covenant that time ran out before they could adopt other positions.

For all the partisan sniping, most AIPAC delegates sought to carry out the lobby's mission of what one senior official called "productive diversity" among its members.

"This year we disagree on policy and we disagree on substance and we disagree on strategy," Weiss said. "But I'm here to change it from within."