"You have tears in your eyes at one moment; you are angry the next -- the emotional swing is enormous," said Michael Tuchin, a Los Angeles lawyer who was in Washington, D.C., this week for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference. "It is an unmatched experience, and for someone who is pro-Israel, it is unbeatable."
That's probably why this is Tuchin's fifth policy conference in his 20-year involvement with the pro-Israel lobby. Tuchin is one of 582 Angelenos -- among 6,000 people -- at this year's 50-year-anniversary gathering. About 5,000 people attended the gala banquet on Monday night, including Ehud Olmert and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). AIPAC officials said it was the largest seated dinner in Washington.
But for all the fanfare; the A-list political speakers, like President Bush, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.); the standing-room-only gatherings; and AIPAC's generally crowd-pleasing mix of emotional pep rallies and informational forums, the event was somewhat marred by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's canceled appearance.
Sharon canceled his visit to Washington a week before the conference, after Likud members rejected his Gaza withdrawal plan. While the withdrawal plan was endorsed by a number of speakers at the conference, including Bush, Israeli Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Eival Gilady and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it did not become part of AIPAC's legislative agenda.
"I think [if Sharon came with the withdrawal plan in hand], it would have made the conference much stronger and energized everyone much more," said Ramin Younessi, a Los Angeles lawyer who was attending the conference for the second time.
Instead of the withdrawal plan, AIPAC concentrated its legislative efforts on three fail-safe perennials:
Support of the peace process that Bush laid out in his April 14 letter to Sharon, including the fact that Israel will not return fully to the 1967 borders and that Palestinian refugees will not return to Israel.
A continuation of U.S. aid to Israel.
Stopping Iran's nuclear program.
AIPAC members lobbied members of the House and Senate on these three points in more than 500 meetings that were set up Tuesday morning, and speakers in the plenary sessions reiterated them numerous times.
Through AIPAC, Tuchin, like many conference attendees, has formed a relationship with a member of congress. A friend introduced Tuchin to Linda Sanchez two years ago, telling him that Sanchez was interested in learning about the U.S.-Israel realtionship.
This Tuesday, Tuchin and other Angeleno AIPACers, like C.A.A. agent Jill Cutler, met Congresswoman Sanchez (D-Lakewood) for a lobbying lunch.
Of course, most of the participants -- who came from the United States, Europe and Israel -- were eager to embrace AIPAC's pro-Israel agenda, hear the politicians and AIPAC officials reiterate how important both AIPAC and Israel are to America and learn about getting involved in the political process.
The Los Angeles contingent, which ranged from college-age students to octogenarians, had the second-largest group at the conference after New York.
They came for different reasons. Some, like Uri Blackman from the Mid-Wilshire area, came to learn more about the U.S. political process and how to lobby. Other AIPAC neophytes, like Mitchell Gettleman from Santa Monica, came to show their support for Israel. Morey Levovitz, the president at Beth Jacob, came for the chance to meet politicians.
"The most important [part] of AIPAC for me is being involved with the process," Levovitz said. "And the most interesting part that I find is just knowing that I am this close to the decisionmakers of the most powerful country in the world. Being in a room with 5,000 people is also very energizing."
As for Tuchin, he came for the opportunity to be with a lot of other people interested in the same issues he was. He joined AIPAC 20 years ago while still a college student, and in that time found his Israeli politics moving from the right to a general support of what the Israeli government is doing, which is the line that AIPAC tends to take when it lobbies.
Over the three-day conference, Tuchin attended a Crossfire-like debate on Israeli politics between a Labor minister and a Likud minister, attended a lunch where Alan Dershowitz discussed anti-Israel sentiment on campus, and had a chance to catch up with Sanchez at the Monday night banquet.
"We're very close friends," Tuchin said. "Linda came to my house for a seder. We spend a lot of time talking about the Israel issue, because it is very important to me, and now Linda has become a leader of U.S.-Israel relations in Congress."
Tuchin thinks it is easier to build a relationship with candidates before they get elected, which is why another guest at his table was Jim Costa, a Democratic candidate who is running for a congressional seat in Fresno.
While the conference encouraged one-on-one relationships, it also fired up people about the Israel cause.
Emotions ran high at the conference. The plenary sessions that opened proceedings every day were a mixture of emotional pep talks and heart-wrenching videos about Israel's fight against terror, Israel's commitment to diversity or Israel's commitment to global humanitarian aid.
Speakers like Lieberman, DeLay and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), received numerous standing ovations throughout their speeches, all of which focused on the United States' commitment to stand by Israel in its fight against terror and the importance of a sound Israel in the Middle East.
The mounting displeasure in the nation with the current administration seemed removed from the conference. At the mere mention of the president's name, the crowd would rise to its feet, and by the time Bush arrived on Tuesday morning (see sidebar), he had received several standing ovations.
"There were liberal Democrats from the Bay Area standing on their chairs and yelling and screaming and cajoling for Bush," said Elliot Brandt, AIPAC's Western states director. "And the reason is the community desperately appreciates the friendship and the understanding and the clarity that the president has shown."
"It's a combination of the Superbowl and The World Series combined into one," said Costa about the tremendous energy in at the conference. "Where else do you find 5,000 people who are all dedicated to such an important issue in our country?"