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Reassured by Clinton, L.A.’s AIPAC Attendees Remain Nervous About Iran

By Hillel Kuttler

March 23, 2010 | 11:45 am

Jon Drucker, a Beverly Hills lawyer, gleaned hope from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remark early in her speech Monday morning to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference.

Clinton referred to conversations backstage with some friends in the organization. Its cultivation of relationships with lawmakers and federal government officials “is what impresses me so much about AIPAC” and bodes well for Israel-U.S. ties in the long term, Drucker said.

That is one reason for Drucker’s confidence that bilateral relations will withstand the administration’s displeasure over a Netanyahu government official’s announcement of plans to proceed with building 1,600 apartments in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. The announcement came during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel two weeks ago and as presidential envoy George Mitchell pieced together plans for indirect “proximity talks” to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Biden’s public condemnation, followed by additional criticisms by Obama administration officials — including Clinton, during her telephone conversation with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — ushered in the AIPAC conference ominously.

The diplomatic row had Los Angeles attendees concerned over the state of affairs between the two countries. AIPAC officials, Clinton and Netanyahu offered reassurances that ties remained solid.

“There are going to be disagreements between the U.S. and Israel. That’s a past fact, a present fact and a future fact,” AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr told a Los Angeles-centric session on lobbying tips, which followed soon after Clinton’s speech. “The U.S.-Israel relationship transcends the peace process. That’s the argument we need [AIPAC] members to focus on.”

Jessica Hochman, a UCLA pediatric resident, compared the countries’ relationship to a marriage in which “it’s natural” to disagree and then to work things out.

Many Los Angeles attendees interviewed at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center said that they were gladdened by Clinton’s presence and by her statement that the administration’s commitment to Israel “is rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”

They expressed the need for the two governments to resolve the tension quickly and return an urgent matter to the front burner: Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.

Drucker called the dispute over the housing announcement “a mutual InsultFest,” but added, “I hope that it blows over because, frankly, Israel and the U.S. have bigger fish to fry here, which is Iran.”

With debate over the just-passed national health care legislation also dominating the executive and legislative branches in recent months, “our challenge” has been to keep the Iranian threat “on top” of the national agenda, Kohr told the Los Angeles delegation.

The 7,500 people attending the conference set a record for the organization. More than 800 were from Los Angeles, about half comprised of synagogue delegations, an AIPAC official said.

The Los Angeles-based Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) brought 40 college students to the event, sandwiched between Shabbat in nearby Baltimore and a visit to New York. The trip constituted “a good opportunity to get them passionate about Judaism and Israel,” said JAM’s executive director Rabbi Brad Yellen.

Many Los Angeles area attendees interviewed said that they came to Washington to learn about Israel-U.S. relations in greater depth and to complement AIPAC’s work in advocating for Israel.

“I feel that it’s my responsibility to go and show my support,” said Yula High School senior Jeffrey Kessler. “It’s important for AIPAC for all these people to come from across the country to lobby their members of Congress. You come the first time and feel empowered. Now, I go because it’s my responsibility.”

Rabbi Spike Anderson said that his 150-strong delegation from Stephen Wise Temple is anxious about the Iranian nuclear threat. The group planned to lobby Congress on the need for economic sanctions against Teheran, which he said goes hand-in-hand with the congregation’s campaign to promote divestment from companies doing business in Iran.

“Fifty percent of our congregants are directly or indirectly from Iran, so they obviously are concerned,” he said.

“Iran is, without a doubt, foremost in the minds of many of our [L.A.] members,” the AIPAC official said. “You talk to people, and the concern is real. Iran has focused [the L.A. community] in a way few things have.”

On Tuesday — traditionally the conference’s concluding day, when AIPAC members visit Capitol Hill to lobby their legislators — Los Angeles attendees were scheduled to gather en masse in the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee hearing room to meet Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Jane Harman (D-Venice) and Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena). Earlier that morning, Senator Barbara Boxer was to address the group at the convention center.

In a session Monday that dealt with imposing sanctions on Iran, Sherman, a foreign affairs committee member, noted that all 10 of his addresses to AIPAC policy conferences have been on Iran.

Because time appears to be short for enacting sanctions to deter Teheran from completing development of nuclear weapons, the United States “now needs to put the pedal to the metal” rather than continue driving at five miles per hour, Sherman said. He urged AIPAC members to lobby for a sanctions bill “without any weakening” or “adulteration.”

In the conference’s kosher cafeteria, two Teheran natives also underscored the urgency of addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.

“We are playing a game of time. If we can delay the bomb enough, the regime will fall,” said Saeed Hekmat-Niaz, an Encino real estate appraiser who was attending his fourth policy conference.

Hekmat-Niaz said that he was inspired moments earlier to have bumped into an Austrian activist from Stop the Bomb, a European organization seeking to prevent a nuclear Iran.

Frank Mesriani, a Woodland Hills delicatessen owner, was enjoying the “very positive energy” he felt at his first AIPAC conference.

“We came to support Israel and to give the message that time is running out for dealing with the Iran crisis,” said Mesriani, who came in Sinai Temple’s delegation. “It’s very unsafe for the whole world. Iran could sell the weapons to the Palestinians and to terrorist organizations, and it would affect the United States.”

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