AIPAC looking to flex its muscles

Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's executive director File photo
Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s executive director
File photo

It’s that time of year again, the time when Jewish politicos, Israel supporters, wealthy donors, Israeli politicians, activists and U.S. lawmakers – who make the two-mile schlep from Capitol Hill mostly to make an appearance – join together at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington between March 1 and 3, for the annual U.S.-Israel policy bacchanal known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference 2015 – the Oscars of pro-Israel public policy.

After a year of what many AIPAC supporters feel was headlined by the White House’s foreign policy blunders on Iran nuclear negotiations, the Israel-Palestine peace process, and the fight against radical Islamic extremists, AIPAC is looking flex its muscles and flaunt its influence with what organizers expect to be its biggest conference yet.

Last year’s conference featured impassioned speeches and panels expressing suspicion about the Obama administration’s P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, in front of a backdrop of worsening relations between the administration and Israel. This year’s conference is certain to feature even more railing against the Iran negotiations in front of a backdrop of even worse, some say rock bottom, relations between Israel and the White House.

This time, the relationship is so bad that unlike the relative snub by the Obama administration during last year’s conference – where Secretary of State John Kerry was the highest ranking official to speak, arriving hours late (officially because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), to a conference which is often addressed by either the president or vice president of the United States – the administration has not offered any high level official to speak at the conference at press time.

“[Administration officials] not meeting with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu two weeks before the [Israeli] election is, in my view, correct,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush and was invited this year by AIPAC to participate in two panel discussions. “[But] failing to send very senior figures to AIPAC is indefensible.

“Blaming and punishing Jewish organizations and the Jewish community for actions of the Israeli government to which the administration objects is what happens in Europe, and is a form of anti-Semitism.”

This past year featured a number of insults between American and Israeli government officials, with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticizing Kerry’s pursuit of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority last year as “messianic” and anonymous U.S. officials Netanyahu “aspergery” and a “chickensh*t.”

The latest tension– which is mostly a product of disagreements on how to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions – manifested itself early this year in a dispute over the handling of an invitation to Netanyahu by House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress and rebut the president’s Iran policy. The invitation, put together by the speaker and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, was made without consulting the White House, State Department or Democratic leaders in Congress. This caused outrage among Democrats, a few of whom will not attend the prime minister’s address on March 3.

“I don’t think how [Netanyahu’s speech] was set up is as important as the fact that he has appeared before and the invitation does come from the Congress of the United States,” said Morris Amitay, former AIPAC executive director and currently the vice chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and founder and treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee.

“As a courtesy, the speaker could have informed the White House or the State Department in advance,” Amitay said. “He didn’t have to, but with the nature of politics in Congress the last few years, I’m not particularly surprised, and sometimes you do try to score political points.”

Both Abrams and Amitay expected an administration snub.

“It should be no surprise, I mean this is not a particularly friendly administration toward AIPAC or toward Israel,” said Amitay, who is a registered independent but has worked for Democratic lawmakers during his time as a Capitol Hill staffer in both the House and Senate. He was also a supporter of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

“I don’t see how any dyed-in-the-wool Democrat can say with a straight face that this is a friendly administration toward Israel,” he said. “I think the president does the minimum that he feels he can get away with but knowing an awful lot of about his background, his education, and following him very, very closely, I think he is a total disaster.

“It’s very important for our country and other nations in the ‘free world’ that the United States takes a strong lead. And I think the biggest deficiency [of the Obama presidency] has been its weakness — not particularly any venality or any evil intention by the administration, I just think that they’ve been inept.”

Last year, some predicted that AIPAC was in decline, its influence waning in a decade saturated by newer, sleeker, more partisan pro-Israel advocacy organizations. Yet, AIPAC pulled through better than expected, securing high levels of financial support from Congress and continued high level military-to-military cooperation.

Although the topic of Iran and Iran sanctions as part of the Kirk-Menendez “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Bill,” will again be put front and center on the agenda this year, AIPAC looks to flex its muscles in a show of force only an organization its size can manage. Organizers expect record attendance and have planned the largest schedule of speeches and breakout sessions for the conference. In regard to AIPAC’s disagreement with the Obama administration, this is a way that AIPAC will also be saying, “I told you so.”

In a speech at the end of last year’s policy conference, Kerry defended the P5+1 negotiations, saying that Israel would be safer under a deal that the administration was nearly certain would be solidified on its Nov. 24 deadline. The deal, according to Kerry, would severely limit Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity. Even then, rumors that the administration was giving into Iran’s demands to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure abounded.

There is still little sign that the talks will finish by the extended deadline of July 1.

Even worse for AIPAC supporters, recent reports claim that the United States has given up even more ground to the Islamic Republic and is now working toward a deal that would allow Iran to continue operating 6,500 centrifuges and “would initially freeze Tehran’s nuclear program but would allow it to slowly ramp up activities that could be used to make nuclear arms over the last years of the agreement’s duration,” writes the Associated Press.

Another initiative Kerry touted last year was his attempt to bring Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority officials together to reach a lasting peace plan and create a Palestinian state. As expected, the negotiations ended in failure, leading Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make unilateral moves toward recognition in the United Nations, and recently joining the International Criminal Court to bring war crimes charges against Israel.

Rather than a lasting peace, violence between Israel and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza strip erupted shortly after the breakdown of the talks.

Amitay, who no longer serves AIPAC in any official capacity but remains close to its leaders, said that the difference between this policy conference and last year’s will be the lessened emphasis on aid to Israel – because, in his opinion, Congress has been exemplary in this respect – but will feature the addition of a focus on threats from Islamic extremism, such as the Islamic State.

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