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[casi] Pro-Israel Activists Seek To Avoid Rift With Administration Over Peace Plan

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> Pro-Israel Activists Seek To Avoid Rift With Administration Over Peace Plan
> Hope To Work On Its Content
> Beginning of Pressure?
> Forward Staff WASHINGTON — Jewish lobbyists were in hair-trigger reaction
> mode this week: furious at the Bush administration for its plans to release
> an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but wary of openly confronting the White
> House on the eve of war.
> With his surprise decision to release the "road map" to peace — announced
> in a March 14 speech — President Bush was plainly threading a diplomatic
> needle. He seemed caught in an impossible squeeze, between Israel and its
> allies in the United States who object to any efforts to boost support for
> war by advancing the peace process, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair,
> whose political survival could depend on such a linkage.
> The apparent importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Blair's
> political future became clear days after the Bush speech: A key British
> Cabinet member, Clare Short, went back Tuesday on her threat to resign over
> the prime minister's Iraq policy. Three other Labor Cabinet members did
> step down, but Parliament voted Tuesday in favor of a resolution
> authorizing that "all means necessary" be used to disarm Iraqi leader
> Saddam Hussein.
> While Bush's speech appeared to help prop up Blair, it sparked anxiety and
> anger among some Jewish communal leaders who had received tacit White House
> assurances that the road map would not be unveiled until after the Iraq
> war. The specter of an open confrontation with the Jewish commmunity comes
> at a particularly risky time for Bush, as an expected 5,000 pro-Israel
> activists prepare to descend on Washington
> in a week for the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs
> Committee.
> Despite immediate White House attempts at damage control — including a
> meeting right after Bush's speech between Jewish communal leaders and
> National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — several pro-Israel lobbyists
> were voicing concern that the administration's flip-flop on when to unveil
> the road map could eventually generate undue pressure on Sharon.
> "Palestinian terrorism continues unabated and the reforms promised by the
> Palestinian Authority leadership are just beginning to emerge," Abraham
> Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a
> statement. "The Administration's current initiative sets a terrible
> precedent by appearing to placate those nations who are opposed to
> America's confrontation with Iraq." Foxman added: "The damage of the
> Administration's statement and its timing was compounded by British Prime
> Minister Tony Blair's remarks, directly linking the Israeli-Palestinian
> conflict and Iraq."
> The Orthodox Union issued its own critical statement, though its leaders
> have steadfastly and enthusiastically praised Bush's handling of Middle
> East issues.
> These sentiments were echoed on Capitol Hill, where staunchly pro-Israel
> legislators attacked Bush over the timing of his decision to present the
> road map, sponsored by the so-called Madrid Quartet comprised of the United
> States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
> "On the brink of war, at the very last moment, Israel has become a pawn in
> the president's strategy on Iraq, and that to me is very troubling," said
> Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat on the House international relations
> committee.
> A spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — a Texas Republican and
> staunch White House ally who has called the quartet's plan a "road map to
> destruction" — refused to comment directly on Bush's speech. But the
> spokesman referred the Forward to DeLay's condemnation of the road map
> during a speech at the O.U.'s Washington convention last week.
> Despite reassurances provided by Rice, "We remain concerned," said Malcolm
> Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major
> American Jewish Organizations. "Our concern is not the intent" of Bush and
> his advisers, Hoenlein said. "Our concern is that the road map could
> develop a dynamic of its own."
> Such a dynamic, Hoenlein told the Forward, could end up seriously
> undermining Bush's previous commitment — announced in a June 24 speech —
> that negotiations on a Palestinian state would not begin until the
> Palestinian Authority underwent significant political reform and terrorism
> ceased.
> Still, for now leaders at several Jewish groups, including Aipac, say they
> will not openly oppose the plan, citing a reluctance to criticize a
> war-time president who has until now been a dependable ally and is
> currently lobbying Congress to approve an aid package for Israel.
> Asked why Jewish organizations were not more publicly critical, one
> activist in Washington said: "On the verge of war, who wants to be seen as
> being in conflict with a president that we consider so pro-Israel?" Another
> activist said that Bush "had banked so much credit over the last two years
> that what otherwise might have been seen as a capitulation, at this point
> is not."
> Perhaps the most important factor behind the muted criticisms was the
> Israeli government's decision to voice public support for the president,
> while working behind the scenes to alter the current version of the road
> map.
> "We see eye to eye with President Bush," an Israeli Foreign Ministry
> spokesman in Jerusalem said. "We share his vision and we are of the
> conviction that once there is a Palestinian prime minister with real powers
> who will begin fighting to stop terror, then Israel will be willing to
> begin discussing a solution."
> But despite such comments, and although the plan has been devised in
> consultation with Israel, Sharon and his aides have let it be known that
> they have numerous concerns about the third and latest draft of the plan.
> The Israeli daily Ha'aretz recently reported that a team of experts
> appointed by Sharon prepared a counter-document proposing more than 100
> changes to the current version of the plan.
> Pro-Israel groups say they will work to produce a document more reflective
> of Bush's June speech and more palatable to the government of Prime
> Minister Sharon. Aipac officials say this approach will prevail during
> their convention March 30 to April 1, as their members flood Capitol Hill
> to lobby for Israel.
> "We will lobby for legislation that codifies President Bush's June 24
> speech," said Aipac spokeswoman Rebecca Needler. "And we will lobby for a
> road map that implements the president's vision of peace as laid out on
> June 24."
> The road map is expected to be submitted to Israel and the P.A. as soon as
> Yasser Arafat appoints a prime minister, following this week's approval in
> the Palestinian Legislative Council of a law defining the powers of the new
> position. The appointment of a prime minister — which could come by the end
> of the week — had been demanded by the White House as the first in a series
> of reforms that the P.A. needed to enact before the peace process could be
> restarted. The candidate for the job is longtime Arafat deputy and Fatah
> co-founder Mahmoud Abbas, known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Mazen.
> The publication of the road map could complicate Israel's attempts to
> revise it. "Once the document is on the table, it is very difficult to
> backtrack," Hoenlein said. However, Israel and its American backers note
> with satisfaction that Bush said in his recent speech that both Israel and
> the Palestinians are welcome to "contribute" to the document after its
> publication, indicating that the plan is still subject to change.
> A key concern Israeli concern is the role that America's partners will play
> in verifying the Palestinians' compliance with the plan. Israel does not
> trust the three other members of the Madrid Quartet, and does not want to
> see them placed in the role of arbiter or referee over the plan's
> implementation process. The plan involves a sequence of reciprocal steps
> taken by Israel and the Palestinians, eventually leading to the creation of
> a Palestinian state in less than three years.
> Another major Israeli concern is the degree of independence and sovereignty
> that a Palestinian state would enjoy under the current plan. According to
> Israeli press reports, Sharon is demanding that the adjective "independent"
> be struck from the language of the road map.
> Sharon's government intended to submit its list of reservations to the Bush
> administration after the war with Iraq, based on a tacit understanding with
> Washington that the road map would not be officially submitted to the
> parties before the outbreak of hostilities.
> But last week the Bush administration reneged on this understanding and
> said it would submit the plan within days, immediately after the P.A.
> officially appointed a new prime minister.
> Jewish organization officials who participated in the meeting with Rice
> expressed particular concern over the timing of the president's address.
> They complained that the speech was clearly meant to help him navigate
> through his administration's diplomatic fiasco at the U.N. over an Iraq
> resolution.
> Immediately after the speech — before she met with the Jewish community
> leaders — Rice gave a long interview to the popular Arabic-language
> satellite television station Al Jazeera in which she said that the United
> States may soon invite the new Palestinian prime minister to the White
> House.
> Experts are divided over the extent to which Bush's statement would
> actually speed up the road to peace. Some say that Bush allowing further
> re-negotiation of the road map language could stretch the process out
> endlessly. Others countered that even though the door was left open for
> further bargaining, major changes were unlikely to take place, since any
> changes made to the document after its publication would be subject to
> quid-pro-quo demands made by the opposing side.
> Observers seem to agree, however, that the degree to which the road map
> will be pursued and implemented depends on American resolve to make
> Israeli-Palestinian peace not just a policy priority of the American
> government, but also a personal priority of the president.
> "The only way this could ever work," said University of Maryland professor
> Shibley Telhami, an expert on American policy in the Middle East, "is if
> the president personally holds its hand and follows it through."
> Meanwhile, according to an Associated Press report, Republican Senator John
> Warner, of Virginia, sent a letter to Bush last week urging that a plan to
> insert NATO peacekeepers into the territories be included in the road map.

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