Although he left the White House nearly five years ago, former President Bill Clinton is still deeply concerned about the Middle East and remains puzzled by his last-minute failure to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
"There hasn't been one day since I left office that I haven't worried about Israel, terrorism, Gaza and Syria," Clinton told more than 1,200 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters attending last week's National Summit on Foreign Policy and Politics of the influential pro-Israel lobby.
Looking regretfully at the past, Clinton said in a Monday plenary address, "I never got a good explanation why [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat walked away at Camp David from a peace treaty that he begged me to undertake."
Turning to Iraq, Clinton observed, "We went into Iraq too early and should have given United Nations inspectors more time. But now we must stay and try to make the situation work."
The two-day summit at the Century Plaza Hotel served mainly as a pep rally for the young to middle-aged audience, which gave every speaker a standing ovation and enthusiastically applauded praise of Israel and AIPAC.
There were no questions nor discouraging words about the recent indictment of two former top AIPAC officials on charges that they conspired with a former Pentagon analyst to communicate secret information to an Israeli diplomat.
Among the 48 forums, scholar-in-residence discussions, plenary sessions and dinner addresses, only one small meeting on "What Does AIPAC of the Future Look Like?" focused on the organization itself, and that session was cancelled.
Everything said at the meeting, including the most lavish praise of Israel and AIPAC, was deemed off the record, and top AIPAC officials were unavailable for interviews. Officials did relent regarding the speech by Clinton, after his office approved submitted quotes.
All that seemed fine with the record number of participants, who appeared dedicated to AIPAC's work and leadership. A few approached a reporter to complain that the Jewish media is overly critical of AIPAC's shortcomings, while rarely giving credit to its accomplishments.
The topics of the various sessions gave some hints of new AIPAC priorities, including a growing interest in homeland security and an active program to establish AIPAC-style organizations or affiliates in European Jewish communities.
At the end of his talk, Clinton said he would leave for Israel within the week to attend a conference at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and to participate in the dedication of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. Rabin was killed by an Israeli extremist 10 years ago, on Nov. 4, 1995.
The concluding speaker was Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser. Speaking via satellite, Hadley urged the Jewish community's support for the administration's policy in Iraq and Middle East and as "an active participant in promoting Palestinian democracy, security reforms and economic prosperity."
The White House released a transcript of Hadley's remarks, sidestepping the issue of whether his remarks, too, were off the record.
Hadley spelled out some of the concrete steps Bush expected Israel to take to boost the Palestinian economy. These included connecting the West Bank and Gaza, improve the ability of Palestinians to travel within their territories, and a start in building a Gaza airport.
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