May 24, 2005

Rice to AIPAC: Abbas must rein in terror


US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice linked America's efforts in Iraq to US support for Palestinian reform in a speech Monday to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, reiterating the Bush administration's view that enabling democracy is the best way to secure peace in the Middle East.

Rice also said President George W. Bush will demand that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismantle all terrorist networks in the Palestinian-populated territories when the two meet in Washington later this week.

"The president will be clear that there are commitments to be met, that there are goals to be met," Rice said.

Speaking to thousands of Jewish and some non-Jewish supporters of Israel at the AIPAC conference in Washington, Rice cited movements toward democratic reform in Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon and Kuwait as evidence that the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East-particularly in Iraq-are "expanding the scope of what many thought possible."

"The best way to defeat the ideology that uses terror as a weapon is to spread freedom and democracy," Rice said, quoting Bush. "That is why President Bush has rejected 60 years of false choices in the Middle East."

"This aspiration shapes the very heart of our approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as well," she said. "For four years, President Bush refused to meet with Yasser Arafat. He did so because Arafat valued neither Israel's security nor his own people's liberty. There were those who ridiculed this principled decision, as if the refusal to negotiate with a man who aided and abetted terrorism somehow revealed a lack of concern for peace."

"America and Israel have tried before to gain peace where democracy did not exist, and we are not going down that road again," Rice said to wide applause.

The Palestinian Authority "must advance democratic reforms and it must dismantle all terrorist networks in its society," Rice added, while Israel must not take any actions that prejudice a final settlement with the Palestinians.

Rice served as the senior Bush administration official to address this year's AIPAC conference. Last year, Bush addressed the annual AIPAC parley and was met with euphoric response for his support for Israel, getting no less than 23 standing ovations during his speech. This year Rice got one, when she said that "Arab states must end incitement in their media, cut off all support for terrorism and extremist education and establish normal relations with Israel."

The speech by Rice was a sign of just how seriously Bush takes Natan Sharansky's argument that democracy is the greatest bulwark against terrorism-something the president has attributed to Sharansky publicly. While Israelis may have paid little attention to Sharansky since his party failed to win a seat in the Knesset during the last elections, the Bush administration-as well as American Jews-continue to embrace the outspoken former Soviet dissident.

In his address Sunday night to the AIPAC conference, Sharansky stopped short of criticizing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan as inconsistent with the philosophy of advancing peace through democratic reform-as he did when he resigned from the cabinet in protest over that plan. Instead, Sharansky spoke of the need to support fledgling democratic movements in Arab autocracies in the Middle East.

"As Jews whose faith was the base for all human rights and civil rights movements in the world, and as Americans, the country which was founded on the belief that faith and freedom always go together," Sharansky said, "you American Jews should not only support it, you should be those who lead the United States and Israel for freedom-for freedom for Egypt, for freedom for Lebanon, for freedom for Syria and, one day, for freedom for Palestinians, and that will be the best guarantee of our security."

Some AIPAC activists privately had expressed the fear that Sharansky would use the opportunity to speak out against Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, which would put the pro-Israel lobbying group and Sharon-who is slated to address the conference Tuesday morning-in an awkward position. But Sharansky instead spoke about his book on democracy, and his support for Bush's policies in the Middle East.

"The most important and the most difficult decision that was taken by the American president" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sharansky said, "was that this time we are not simply replacing one regime or one dictator with another… This time there will be democracy, there will be freedom."

About 5,000 people have turned out for this year's AIPAC conference, which runs through Tuesday afternoon, making it the largest in the organization's 51-year history, AIPAC officials said.

Among other things, the conference requires a massive logistical undertaking to house the delegates, feed them and bus them from place to place. According to an AIPAC fact sheet, the conference required 26,000 glatt-kosher meals, including 1,200 pounds of turkey, 900 pounds of chicken and 125 gallons of humus.

Immediately after Rice's speech on Monday morning, thousands of AIPAC delegates boarded a motorcade of buses that was escorted through the streets of the nation's capital by Washington police who helped rush them to a falafel lunch at the Washington Hilton.

Kiesha Cockett, a black college student from Spelman College in Georgia, was one of several hundred students who came to the conference. AIPAC paid for her and several other students from her college to come to Washington. "Most of us are here to understand what is the principle of this whole thing," she said. "I hope to learn a lot about the alliance between Israel and America."

This year, the aim of the conference was not only to put together the usual massive show of support for Israel, but also to demonstrate to delegates AIPAC's own vitality and strength as an espionage controversy threatens the organization's reputation.

The FBI is investigating two former high-level AIPAC employees, former research director Steve Rosen and former Iran analyst Keith Weissman, for possible espionage. The two allegedly were given classified information by Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin in what has been described as a sting operation.

Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, talked about the probe on the conference's first day.

"As you know, AIPAC has been dealing with a unique challenge these past few months. The investigation by the FBI has followed an unpredictable path and presented our institution with a complex circumstance," Kohr said. "We now know, directly from the government, that neither AIPAC nor any of its current employees, is or ever has been the target of this investigation, and I can definitely say that AIPAC will emerge from this, and no part of our work-on Capitol Hill, in the administration, in our grass roots-will be affected by the investigation."

He also pledged to take steps to guarantee that AIPAC functions with transparency and accountability.

Outside the Washington Convention Center, where the conference was held, a lone protester brandished a sign reading, "Welcome AIPAC Spies."

Laurence Weiss, a longtime supporter of AIPAC from Philadelphia, said most delegates at the conference weren't really talking about the investigation. "It's not been anything I heard discussed at any of the tables I've been at," he said.

After Sharon's speech to the conference on Tuesday, the conference will culminate with a massive show of lobbying as AIPAC delegates head to Capitol Hill to meet with their congressmen to talk about Israel.