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Why Israel Lobby Refrains From Challenging Bush’s ‘Road Map’

Times Staff Writer

Israel may have never had a better friend in the White House than George W. Bush. But suddenly, that friendship is becoming uncomfortable for the lawmakers and lobbyists who push for Israel’s interests in Washington.

With the unveiling last week of the “road map” for Mideast peace, the Bush administration has begun an intensive effort to reach a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The plan offers elements long resisted by successive Israeli governments, and normally, Israel’s formidable allies would be expected to deploy in strength in Congress and inside the administration itself to defuse pressure for tough concessions.

But the pro-Israel lobby finds itself hanging back these days, reluctant to confront Israel’s benefactor as he emerges victorious from the war in Iraq.

“There’s very little desire to take him on right now, at the period of his greatest strength,” said Marshall Breger, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law who was President Reagan’s liaison with the American Jewish community. “The organized community just doesn’t want to go at him head on.”

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After all, President Bush has delivered Israel from its greatest military threat. His administration has proposed a massive new financial aid package and committed itself to doing even more in the years ahead to make Israel’s tough neighborhood a little safer.

What’s more, Bush’s friendship is treasured by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has asserted that no American president has been as supportive of Israel’s interests.

So when the administration’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace was released last week and Israel politely welcomed it -- with reservations -- so did its allies in Washington.

“This initiative presents a real opportunity for the Palestinians to once and for all cut their ties to terrorism and pursue peace with their Israeli neighbors,” the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Political Action Committee, or AIPAC, said in a statement.

The deferential tone may not last as the two sides get down to hard bargaining in the months ahead. Yet it shows how much leverage Bush has, at least in the opening rounds of the process.

The road map calls for progressive concessions from each side, in a three-phased program that aims to achieve peace and an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

It begins with a Palestinian cease-fire and the dismantling of terrorist groups. Israel would be expected to stop attacks on Palestinian civilians, dismantle the 70 or so West Bank settlements built since March 2001, freeze new settlement activity and gradually withdraw from areas it has occupied since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

The process is to be mediated by an international group called the “quartet” -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

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Pro-Israel advocacy groups have been worrying since last year that once the Iraq war was over, the Bush administration would begin pressuring Israel to make concessions. European and Arab countries have been pushing Bush to turn his attention to Mideast peace, and the president promised his most important war ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that he would do so.

Successive Israeli governments have resisted key aspects of the plan, including the freezing of settlements and the imposition of a solution by an international group.

Sharon, for his part, has said that he’s in favor of the plan “in principle,” though he has pushed for specific changes.

All through the winter, pro-Israel lawmakers and advocacy groups met with top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, to argue that the plan should be altered before it was released.

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Convinced that the Europeans and U.N. are pro-Palestinian, they urged the administration to minimize the role of other quartet members in mediating between the sides. They prodded administration officials to follow the terms Bush set out in a speech last June, when he insisted that the Palestinians would have to change their leaders, renounce violence and adopt institutional reforms before a state could be established.

Pro-Israel lawmakers and advocates, including some evangelical Christian groups, carried on a public campaign as well.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) called the proposal the “road map to destruction.” In a scorching March 12 speech to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, DeLay said Israelis “don’t need to travel the path of weakness as defined by the neo-appeasers.”

When AIPAC held its annual policy conference in Washington in March, the atmosphere was hostile to the plan. References by speakers to the road map were met with boos, according to attendees.

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But when the White House made it clear recently that it would not rewrite the plan before its release -- rejecting the 14 points a Sharon envoy presented last month -- the tone shifted.

Last week, DeLay emphasized that he supported the president’s effort, because he’d been assured “over and over again” that Bush would stick to the approach he laid out in the June speech.

Though some Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the conservative Zionist Organization of America, have continued to stress their opposition to features of the plan, others, such as AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition, have stressed their support for Bush’s effort.

Meanwhile, some more dovish Jewish American groups and prominent individuals have stepped forward to voice support for the road map.

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Two groups, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, have begun lobbying Capitol Hill, and representatives of the two have written op-ed articles in major newspapers. A group of 14 major Jewish philanthropists came out for the effort, saying it “provides Israel with a distinct opportunity to escape the bloody status quo” of the last 2 1/2 years.

“We believe the American Jewish community is more dovish than the statements of some groups would lead you to believe,” said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now.

Steven L. Spiegel, a UCLA political science professor associated with the Israel Policy Forum, says it has been awkward for more hawkish segments of the Jewish American community to challenge the road map when they have been fervently supporting Bush’s tough approach to the Middle East.

Breger said Jewish American advocacy groups and Israeli officials are also reluctant to clash with Bush because they remember the clash between Bush’s father and Israelis 12 years ago.

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In 1991, after the Persian Gulf War, then-President Bush pressured then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to give ground on the settlements and join in a new peace effort. When Shamir resisted, U.S.-Israeli relations fell to a low point.

“Sharon remembers that,” Breger said.

He said some pro-Israel advocates and Israelis may be ducking a confrontation simply because they believe the peace effort will peter out, much like the peace effort that began in Oslo in 1993.

“A lot of people, including many right-wing Israelis, think: ‘This isn’t going anywhere, so we don’t have to get upset,’ ” he said.

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