Nerves Raw, U.S., Israel Open Conference

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When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn him that an Israeli housing project in East Jerusalem is harming U.S. interests, a pro-Israel lobby in Washington was quick to accuse Clinton of blowing things out of proportion. AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, called on the Obama administration to tone down the rhetoric. The Obama administration did get support, though, from a new pro-Israel lobby, J Street, which says Israel has to take steps to improve relations. It is against this backdrop that AIPAC opens its annual policy conference, a meeting where both Clinton and Netanyahu are expected to speak.


Pro-Israel lobbyists are gathering in Washington today for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The meeting comes at a tense time in U.S.-Israeli relations and amid a debate among Jewish lobbyists in D.C. over how the Obama administration is handling the situation.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When the Obama administration turned up the heat on Israel over a housing project in east Jerusalem, AIPAC was quick to respond. Its statement said that the U.S. should take immediate steps to defuse tensions. Robert Satloff for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy echoed that, saying he thinks the Obama administration went too far in asking Israel to prove it's committed to a peace process with the Palestinians.

Mr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): I think the idea that the Israelis somehow have to meet an American test to show their commitment to peace is quite odd and strains incredulity.

KELEMEN: Satloff is hoping that this is just a passing storm, though he does have lingering concerns about a trust deficit in the relationship. The initial AIPAC response didn't say anything about what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could do to restore trust. So, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation decided as a joke to rewrite the AIPAC statement for his blog, urging Israel to take immediate steps to defuse tensions with the U.S.

Mr. STEVEN CLEMONS (New America Foundation): I just kind of did a 180-degree flip, and I actually did it in four minutes. I rewrote it in four minutes. It got a lot of play on the Internet.

KELEMEN: Clemons says it's time for well-meaning supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship to encourage more responsible behavior from this Israeli government, particularly on the issue of expanding Jewish settlements.

Mr. CLEMONS: The whole notion that there's no space or no light between the U.S. and Israeli positions is a ridiculous formulation because we're both sovereign governments with interests that often converge and some interests that diverge, and we're going to have to occasionally wrestle over those.

KELEMEN: Clemons says he's glad that AIPAC no longer has a monopoly on the American discourse about Israel. A new, smaller lobbying group, J Street, has been much more supportive of the Obama administration's approach. Its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, says the U.S. was right to be angry - not just about that one housing announcement that overshadowed Vice President Biden's recent trip, but also about a series of Israeli actions that call into question the viability of a future Palestinian state.

Mr. JEREMY BEN-AMI (Executive Director, J Street): If what happened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was a slap in the face to the United States, I hope that it was also a wakeup call, that this is not a time for business as usual and we may be reaching a point where some bold leadership is necessary.

KELEMEN: Ben-Ami says the Obama administration should reaffirm its friendship with Israel, but he adds, that means telling the hard truth and explaining that moving toward peace is America's national security interest.

Mr. BEN-AMI: And if tensions boil over and lead to further armed conflict, it has a deep impact on America's national security interests, on troops in the region, on its security, economic interests. So, we have our own interests as Americans and that's a prism that Israelis need to understand we're going to be looking at this region through as well.

KELEMEN: J Street's positions have not made it very popular among officials in Prime Minister Netanyahu's government. Netanyahu is coming to Washington to speak to the pro-Israel lobby that has supported him in this showdown. He is to address AIPAC Monday night.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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