May 22, 2005

US Jews plan show of support for PM on pullout

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon comes here next week to meet with Americans Jews and, in Washington, to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israelis should not expect to see a mirror image abroad of the battle over the disengagement plan that Sharon has experienced at home.

There will be dissent, to be sure, but voices opposing the Gaza withdrawal are likely to be drowned out by a massive show of support for the Jewish state by Jewish organizational leaders, pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, and the hundreds of members of Congress, diplomats and Bush administration officials expected at the AIPAC conference.

"AIPAC and its members are energized," said Josh Block, a spokesman for the 100,000-member pro-Israel lobbying group, widely considered one of the most influential in Washington. AIPAC has been lobbying for strong US support for Israel's disengagement plan, and possible additional funding from Congress should Israel ask for it.

Before he goes to the AIPAC parley, Sharon will deliver a speech in New York on Sunday to some 1,200 people expected at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the US Jewish umbrella group that deals with Middle East-related issues. A demonstration of Americans opposed to the withdrawal plan is planned for the Manhattan street outside.

"We're going to call upon [Sharon] to proclaim to the world that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people and therefore he should not renounce the Jewish people's claim to it," said Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox rabbi from New Jersey slated to speak at the protest. "If he intends to ask American citizens to pay a half billion dollars for his folly, let him keep his hands out of my pockets."

While polls show American Jewish opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan is roughly equal in proportion to opposition to the plan in Israel, the US opponents of withdrawal have been far less vocal about their opposition and have fewer means to express it than the Israelis. That means that while demonstrations against the withdrawal will be a presence outside the sites of Sharon's meetings, the prime minister probably will face little criticism to his plans from inside the ballrooms in Washington in New York.

More likely, he'll get a welcome similar to that received last year by President George W. Bush, who was interrupted by 23 standing ovations during his address at the 2004 AIPAC policy conference. At the time, Bush called Sharon's plan "bold," and told the AIPAC delegates, "In a dangerous new century, your work is more vital than ever."

"It's different here than it would be in Israel, of course, for [Sharon]," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. "This is not something that is our agenda. This is an Israeli agenda. We support the government of Israel and it's decision."

Hoenlein's 52-member group voted last October to express support for the prime minister's disengagement plan, but the group has stopped short of explicitly rallying support for the withdrawal due to opposition to the plan by some of its members.

Perhaps Sharon's most vociferous opponent at the AIPAC conference will be a former member of his own government, Natan Sharansky, who was invited to speak at the annual US Jewish policy conference before he resigned as minister of Diaspora affairs over his opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan.

Sharansky, who in recent months has been garnering far greater attention abroad than he has at home, is expected to speak about his new book on democracy, not on the withdrawal plan, AIPAC officials said. But that book, "The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," implicitly critiques making any concessions to terrorists, and Sharansky may argue, as he has before, that pulling out of Gaza without a concomitant Palestinian commitment to clamping down on terrorism will do more harm than good.

"I'm told he will say that you certainly don't leave Gaza without making sure you have major compliance with the road map in place," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which fiercely opposes the withdrawal. Sharansky could not be reached for comment.

Perhaps just as controversial for some AIPAC delegates are the group's own troubles. The organization is reeling from an FBI investigation of two former AIPAC staffers related to possible espionage charges. The two men-Steve Rosen, AIPAC's research director, and Keith Weissman, an Iran analyst at AIPAC-allegedly were given classified information on Iran by Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, in what has been described as a sting operation.

The FBI is looking into whether Rosen or Weissman passed on any of that information to Israeli officials, a crime that would carry with it the charge of espionage. Rosen and Weissman were both fired from AIPAC last month, and Rosen reportedly has told associates he expects to be indicted.

While AIPAC publicly touts its strengths-with some 5,000 people expected, this conference may be the biggest in the organization's 51 years, it draws more members of Congress than nearly any other non-government event and it culminates in a massive show of lobbying for Israel on Capitol Hill-hallway discussion undoubtedly will be focused on whether the pro-Israel group can emerge from under the cloud of impropriety resulting from the FBI probe.

AIPAC officials are working hard to dispel the notion that it has been involved in any wrongdoing. Nathan Lewin, the Washington lawyer representing AIPAC in the FBI probe, said the group repeatedly has been told by the FBI that it is not a target of the federal investigation. The best way for AIPAC to move on, Lewin said, is for it to continue going about its regular business.

Among the top priorities at next week's conference will be strengthening support for Israel as it moves ahead with the withdrawal from Gaza; lobbying Congress for broad support for foreign aid to Israel; pressing the United States to deal effectively with the threat of Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons, and pressing the Palestinian Authority to advance the road map peace plan by cracking down on terrorism, according to officials close to the organization's leadership.

Among those expected to speak, in addition to Sharon and Sharansky, are US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House speaker Dennis Hastert; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi; Sen. Hillary Clinton; Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; Yosef "Tomy" Lapid; and the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, Howard Dean and Ken Mehlman, respectively.