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Settlements strain Israel's relationships with U.S. and Hillary Clinton

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; A02

As members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee entered the Washington Convention Center on Monday for their annual conference, a man stood outside, handing out copies of what he called "today's statement."

On AIPAC letterhead, the statement trumpeted: "AIPAC Calls on the Israeli Government to Immediately Defuse Tensions with United States; Urges Israel to Freeze All Settlements."

This was news: Even the pro-Israel lobbying group was not going to tolerate the humiliation of Joe Biden by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, when it announced the construction of more housing in a disputed area of Jerusalem during the vice president's trip to the Jewish state.

National Public Radio broadcast the statement to millions on "Morning Edition." ABC News ran with it, too.

Alas, AIPAC spokesman Josh Block pronounced the statement a forgery.

Indeed, the real AIPAC officials rallied to the Netanyahu government's defense. The only rebuke they delivered Monday was of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, their guest speaker. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, departing from his prepared text, took a swipe at Clinton for calling Israel's insult of Biden "insulting."

"When disagreements inevitably arise, they should be resolved privately, as is befitting close allies," Kohr lectured. As Clinton waited backstage, he also informed her that the two nations "are allies, friends -- they should treat each other as such." Further, he said, alluded to the housing construction: "Jerusalem is not a settlement." The lights went up, and the 7,500 in the hall jumped to their feet, applauding.

Sensing an opportunity, the loyal opposition joined with AIPAC in taking Netanyahu's side against the Obama administration. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the Republican speaker at AIPAC's dinner Monday night, seconded Kohr's view that allies should "disagree quietly." Added Graham: "Howard said it best: Jerusalem is not a settlement! . . . No government in the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement!"

The place went wild.

The crowd got even more raucous when Netanyahu himself took a shot at the Obama administration. "Jerusalem is not a settlement -- it's our capital!" he said. The unrepentant prime minister nodded, waved and thanked the crowd for the extended applause. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement," he said.

The audience was rather less enthusiastic as Clinton defended her criticism of Israel. "New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust" between Israelis and Palestinians, she said. "And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. It undermines America's unique ability to play a role, an essential role, in the peace process."

The crowd was still and quiet. The secretary of state worked her way rapidly through her text.

Clinton, the former senator from New York and one of the strongest supporters Israel has in the U.S. government, deserved better. The cool treatment of an old friend is something AIPAC can ill afford at a time when there are so many actual foes to deal with.

Those attending the conference got a reminder of that when they walked into the gathering. Across the street were demonstrators carrying vile messages on signs: "God Hates Jews." "You Will Eat Your Babies." Others carried an Israeli flag defaced with a swastika. The liberal Code Pink group marched around the building hollering about "apartheid" and carrying a banner saying "Stop Israel War Crimes."

During her primary fight against Barack Obama, Clinton counted many in the room as part of her core constituency, but now she was part of an administration they didn't entirely trust. They stood to applaud her arrival, but with little of their past enthusiasm.

She began with a defense of her pro-Israel credentials that should not have been necessary: "I have shared your pride. . . . I sat there and listened. . . . I was proud to be a strong voice." She pressed all the right buttons, calling Iran's nuclear ambitions "unacceptable" four times.

But when she asserted that "the Obama administration has worked to promote Israel's security and long-term success," there was only silence in the room. Finally, she addressed the controversy. Both Israel and the Palestinians, she said, "must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests, nor has it served the interests of the United States." There was no applause.

It remained quiet as she called for a settlement "based on the '67 lines with agreed swaps" of territory. "It is our devotion to this outcome, two states for two peoples secure and at peace, that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem," she said. "This is about getting to the table . . . and staying there until the job is finally done."

In the audience, the majority just sat and stared at their old friend.

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