The concept for Israel Policy Forum emerged out of conversations among Robert K. Lifton, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and other members of the Rabin administration about developing US Jewish backing for Rabin’s program for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The group formally began in March 1993 with an agenda to build support for the peace efforts among Jewish communal leaders through education and advocacy.
As a “grass-tops group,” IPF is a cross between a think-tank and an advocacy group. Its strategy is to make recommendations for constructive US leadership in Middle East peace diplomacy and to cultivate relations among prominent Jews with high-level access to the administration and other top policy makers so as to advance their advocacy agenda. It met with every National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the Obama, Clinton, and Bush administrations. IPF builds advocacy networks of mainstream, centrist, pragmatic Jewish leaders. The group utilizes US and Israeli Advisory Councils (made up of Israeli and American analysts as well as former government officials) to issue position papers and to communicate the IPF perspective to the media.
In an era where the two-state issue has generated fierce polarization on Capitol Hill and fractious debate in the American Jewish community, IPF prides itself on nuance and an evenhanded approach. It serves as a centrist voice of the two-state solution and a strong, secure Israel. IPF’s messages are crafted to build support for the notion that Israel benefits from the US playing the role of facilitator and mediator.
IPF activities include public forums, written commentary that promotes pragmatic strategies for achieving peace, and the mobilization of key policy experts and community leaders to build support for those ideas in the US and Israel. The group has led delegations to the Middle East featuring prominent political and policy leaders. IPF also contributes op-eds and other pieces to major publications in both Israel and the US and regularly issues letters with high profile signers.
IPF’s first public activity was a supportive op-ed in the New York Times on September 13, 1993, the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chair Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords at a White House ceremony. Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of the Palestinian people, giving it limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced terrorism and other violence, and gave up claims to Israeli territory as defined by pre-1967 borders.
Each year, IPF provides a well-connected Jewish audience, built over years of carefully cultivated relationships, for its Leadership Event. It is used to support key figures that promote peacemaking efforts; many honorees have made significant policy statements at this annual event.
In one of his last acts as President, Bill Clinton outlined his guidelines for a Permanent Status Agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an IPF Gala dinner in 2001. He subsequently proposed these guidelines, which came to be known as the “Clinton Parameters,” to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams.
At the 2005 IPF dinner, Ehud Olmert, representing PM Ariel Sharon, made headlines when he stated, “We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. And I believe that this is not impossible”.
IPF’s most important role, however, might be its behind the scenes political influence. The organization played a major role in convincing then-President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright to apply more pressure on PM Netanyahu for further territorial withdrawal, halting settlement activity, and concessions made to Arafat as part of the Wye Agreements When Clinton and Rabin were both in power, IPF played a key role in encouraging AIPAC not to oppose the peace process. This was facilitated by a number of overlapping leaders in both organizations.
In 2005, for example, IPF mobilized 27 major Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and both the Reform and Conservative movements to sign on to a New York Times ad supporting disengagement from Gaza as a step toward two states. They managed this at a time when the Conference of Presidents was reluctant to do so.
In sum, IPF provides a high level, well-connected Jewish audience, built over years of carefully cultivated relationships. It plays a key role by initiating strategic outreach by and to major political actors and donors both privately and at public events featuring major Israeli stakeholders. Their public letters and position papers have been important in formulating American policy regarding the two-state solution.