April 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill Monday marked the opening salvo of what may well be the greatest flexing of American Jewish political muscle on behalf of Israel since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.

But it is doubtful that the rally was the biggest event in support of Israel in American history, as has been widely reported and the much touted 100,000 attendance figure seems unlikely as well.

And although the rally reflected a strong and united pro-Israel consensus in the American Jewish community, with very impressive bipartisan support in Congress, it also reflected growing divisions between supporters of Israel and President George W. Bush.

Organizers of the rally estimated that more than 100,000 Jews from across the United States attended it, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported this figure. But it was widely disputed.

The strongly pro-Israel "Insight" magazine put the figure at 75,000 and Washington's Channel 8 News put the figure at 45,000. The U.S. Parks Service no longer counts the numbers at rallies at the Capitol or on the Washington Mall since Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam disputed their estimate that far, far less than a million African Americans attended his Million Man March a few years ago.

The 45,000 figure may be the closest to being the most accurate one. The crowd assembled on the historic western front lawn of the Capitol and reached as far as the first cross street and reflecting pool. But it did not spill back on to the vast two-mile Washington Mall. By contrast, virtually the entire Mall was filled for the monster Soviet Jewry demonstration that attracted up to 750,000 people more than a decade ago.

But the rally was a striking flexing of political muscle. It boasted such congressional heavyweights among its speakers as Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, Democrat House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York also attended it.

However, the only Bush administration official to attend the rally was its highest ranking Jewish member, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and it was the most embarrassing experience of his career. When Wolfowitz said, "Innocent Palestinians are suffering," he was booed and heckled so loudly by the angry crowd that he found it difficult to continue. The crowd steadily chanted "No More Arafat." Flustered, Wolfowitz had to stop and repeat himself several times and on one occasion stumbled and said that the Bush administration had "driven the Taliban from powder" when he meant to say "from power."

By contrast, the rally was a personal triumph for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The American-educated and trained Netanyahu has been enlisted by his bitter political rival, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to try and reverse the escalating Israeli diplomatic and information disaster around the world during the current military incursion into the Palestinian-run West Bank. He attracted by far the strongest applause and support of the day, outstripping even popular former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the local favorite, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat.

Netanyahu repeatedly lambasted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, with whom he signed the 1998 Wye Accords as prime minister. He described Arafat repeatedly as a terrorist who allowed the inculcation of anti-Semitic hatred in PA-controlled media and schools. "Yasser Arafat is nothing more than Osama bin Laden with good PR," he said.

Netanyahu also praised President Bush. "No greeter friend of Israel has ever been in the White House," he said. But other speakers from the Republican right were a lot more critical of the president, reflecting the increasing pressure he is under from supporters of Israel for trying to rein in Sharon and get him to pull his forces out of the West Bank.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett, a Republican, spoke at the rally to loud cheers. He later told Insight magazine: "I believe it was a mistake for President Bush to send Secretary (of State Colin) Powell to the Middle East at this time."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky also addressed the rally. Hundreds of children were transported in to attend it from Jewish day schools throughout the Washington area and 30 bus loads of Lubavitch Hasidim made the trip south from Brooklyn. Security at the rally was relatively light but no terrorist threats or other violence or disruption was reported.

The rally was entitled Israel Solidarity and it was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities. It came less than a week before the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, annual policy conference is due to start this coming Sunday. The day before it is due to start, Saturday, a massive Arab-Palestinian support rally is scheduled to be held in Washington.

The rally served notice that the continuing Middle East conflict is likely to have increasingly powerful political repercussions within the United States. And Bush and his republicans are likely to be more fragmented over it than the Democrats.

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