Washington — “You can clap,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the crowd of pro-Israel activists during a rare awkward moment in the otherwise meticulously orchestrated gathering. The Israeli leader was asking the 14,000-strong audience to back his call for Palestinian leadership to move forward with the peace process. “You want to encourage them to do that. I do, and I know you do too.”
Prodded by Netanyahu, members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the call for peace. But the moment made clear that discussing the peace process, even in the context of placing demands on the Palestinians, had taken supporters of the lobby out of their comfort zone.
AIPAC has tried hard to stay above the fray during the debate over the upcoming American brokered framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, at its annual policy conference, which ended yesterday, the peace process placed third on AIPAC’s priority list, far under Iran and even less central than the battle against boycott of Israel.
But the luxury of remaining on the sidelines on this issue is about to end. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to finalize his framework for Israeli–Palestinian peace by the end of the month, and once he does, the lobby could be forced to take sides as disagreements between Israel and the United States emerge concerning the specifics of the U.S. peace initiative.
“They’re tough issues. They’re complicated. But there is a vision of peace, and it takes tough choices on both sides, especially over the coming days,” Kerry told participants of the AIPAC annual conference in his March 3 address. The speech, filled with praise for Netanyahu and with repeated promises to ensure Israel’s security, received a cool response from the audience, much different than the enthusiastic embrace leading lawmakers from both parties got.
Dealing with the Middle East peace process has always been more difficult for the lobby than advocating against a nuclear Iran or for ensuring foreign aid to Israel, AIPAC’s two core issues. The lobby has been involved in the past in legislation aimed at cutting funds to the Palestinian Authority, limiting the work of the PLO mission in Washington, and urging the transfer of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, all viewed as controversial and opposed by the administration. AIPAC has, however, always stepped around the issue of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The step-around has not always been easy. The lobby, for example, joined Israel in rejecting the Palestinian Authority’s insistence that Israel freeze expansion of its settlements in the West Bank as a condition for restarting negotiations. But it has refrained from defending or endorsing expansion of the settlements themselves.