Friday, May 28, 1999 | return to: national


After Barak win, AIPAC reverses opposition to a Palestinian state

by MATTHEW DORF, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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WASHINGTON -- The American Israel Public Affairs Committee dropped its long-standing opposition to a Palestinian state on Sunday -- less than a week after Israel's elections.

AIPAC leaders said they had been planning to make the change regardless of the election's outcome. Considering the fact that Ehud Barak won the vote for prime minister, the vote's coincidental timing was a lucky break. Barak's aides had been charging that AIPAC is a Likud-oriented organization that has never fully supported the peace process.

Barak's Labor Party dropped its own opposition to statehood three years ago. So with a sense of drama, AIPAC's executive committee convened Sunday, one year after it failed by a slim margin to adopt the same position.

This time around, the executive committee overwhelmingly killed the 15-year-old policy after a brief debate behind closed doors.

To be sure, AIPAC did not come out in support of Palestinian statehood.

Instead, the group, which celebrated its 40th anniversary during its annual policy conference here this week, endorsed a "political solution" that would "permit the exercise of Palestinian self-government while excluding those powers that would endanger the security of Israel."

Whether the Palestinian entity becomes a state is a matter for negotiations, the group said.

The shift gives needed ammunition to the organization's effort to reposition itself behind the new prime minister.

It also reflects a reality of American Jewish life. AIPAC, like most Jewish organizations, has once again been forced to adjust to a dramatic shift in the Israeli government.

This shift, which over the past decade has moved every election cycle from Likud to Labor to Likud and back to Labor, is particularly significant for AIPAC, which lobbies in support of Israel on Capitol Hill and with the U.S. administration.

Just months ago, AIPAC found itself playing a pivotal role at a time of strained relations between Israel and the Clinton administration.

While the U.S. administration was snubbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressuring him to move forward on the stalled peace process, AIPAC on numerous occasions mobilized Congress to protect Israel against pressure from the White House.

The group touted as one of its most significant achievements a March 1998 letter signed by 81 senators who pledged to oppose U.S. pressure on Israel.

Now AIPAC will be called on to support an Israeli government that has promised to move forward with negotiations with the Palestinians, and possibly the Syrians as well.

This means that instead of focusing its lobbying efforts in Congress to press the Palestinians to comply with its commitments, AIPAC will need to shift gears.

At the same time, the group is in a wait-and-see mode with Barak, who will likely take a tough position with the Palestinians. AIPAC officials say they will have to work to lower expectations in Congress for an immediate peace agreement.

Once Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume, the parties are going to be immersed in the most difficult issues yet, including final borders, statehood, refugees, water and the status of Jerusalem.

Lonny Kaplan, president of AIPAC, said the group is up to the task. "We have structured our work in such a way to be ready for the twists and turns" in the political landscape, he said.

With this in mind, AIPAC leaders dramatically changed the rhetoric and tone of this year's conference, which marked the lowest attendance this decade. AIPAC counted 900 delegates, plus 600 students.

Gone were the passionate speeches against the Palestinians for not complying with the peace accords with Israel. Instead AIPAC officials spoke in general terms about the benefits of peace.

"Anyone who cares about Israel should support peace, should be working with every fiber of their being to attain it," AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, said in his convention address.

Kaplan echoed that view, saying that his mission is "to bring closer the day when peace comes" to Israel.

Part of the challenge for AIPAC will be to convince the Barak-led government that it stands behind him.

Barak aides had been incensed when Barak was not originally invited to participate in this year's AIPAC conference. Thinking that an election runoff was in the works and that Netanyahu would still be Israel's prime minister, AIPAC officials chose to invite only the sitting premier.

AIPAC received the same complaint from Likud in 1996, when Netanyahu, who was running against then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was excluded from the annual conference.

As soon as the election results were clear last week, AIPAC quickly reversed course, withdrawing the invite to Netanyahu and issuing one to Barak.

Barak declined, pleading a tight schedule as he works to put together a government coalition.

And while bad feelings linger among some in the Barak camp, Barak and his most senior deputies have signaled in private conversations with AIPAC leaders that he is ready to bury the hatchet, according to AIPAC and Labor Party officials.

In a letter to the delegates, Barak said, "Historically important tasks lie ahead of us, and only joining hands together can bring about their successful accomplishment.

"Your success is our success," he wrote, expressing his "deep appreciation to the entire American Jewish community and on this special day to AIPAC in particular for its invaluable contribution to strengthening U.S.-Israeli relations throughout the years."

For their part, AIPAC officials pledged unwavering support.

"AIPAC will work tirelessly with the new prime minister as he endeavors to strengthen Israel, her economy, her military and her people," Kohr said in his speech.

"And, Mr. Barak, we look forward to working with you in your most awesome task of all: the pursuit of peace."

Indeed, the new AIPAC message appears to be: Let Israel make its own decisions when it comes to talks with its Arab neighbors.

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