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At AIPAC, effort to shift focus back to agenda: Iran, foreign aid, Capitol Hill relationships

by Ron Kampeas

May 24, 2011 | 8:14 am

Let’s get past this U.S.-Israel relationship thing, so we can get on with important stuff, like the U.S.-Israel relationship.

That seemed to be the message this week at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

With a record 10,000 people and both the U.S. and Israeli leaders in attendance—plus 67 U.S. senators and 286 members of the U.S. House of Representatives at the gala dinner on Monday night—this AIPAC parley was the biggest and in many ways the most impressive ever.

After the bickering last week between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC leaders were keen to focus on what they had hoped would be the headline-makers for this conference: Yanking the public’s attention back to Iran after months of distraction by the so-called Arab Spring, and bludgeoning the Palestinian Authority with the threat of isolation if it presses forward with its inclusion of Hamas and its quest for statehood recognition at the United Nations in September.

The other agenda item for the AIPAC crowd was trying to make sense of how to foster support for Israel in a U.S. electorate that is changing more rapidly and dramatically than it has in generations.

Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC’s president, described for the convention in dramatic terms the realities posed by a Congress that has turned over by a third in just two years.

“Capitol Hill is no longer a place of entrenched incumbency,” Rosenberg said. “Knowledge and institutional memory—gone! Continuity—gone! Relationships—gone!”

Those elements, for decades the basis of AIPAC’s success in cultivating long-term relationships, have been jeopardized by the Tea Party insurgency. AIPAC insiders and conference speakers said the lobbying group has little to fear from the Republican Party’s conservative wing, which has embraced the party’s pro-Israel posture.

Nonetheless, the massive turnover in Congress hinders efforts to form the lasting relationships on Capitol Hill that get AIPAC activists into the door and give their priorities a hearing.

Those relationships are key to getting the lobby’s preferred bills “dropped”—Washington parlance for introduced—and as usual, many of these were rushed to the floor in the days before the conference. The bills appeared in the kits that the AIPAC attendees picked up at registration.

One bill, already under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives and likely to appear soon in the Senate, would considerably tighten Iran sanctions that already were enhanced less than a year ago. The newest bill would expand sanctions against Iran’s financial institutions, target human rights abusers, facilitate assistance to democracy activists and, most critically, reduce to $5 million from $20 million the minimum amount in annual trade with Iran’s energy sector that would invite sanctions.

AIPAC has been unhappy with the pace of the Obama administration’s imposition of the most recent sanctions, and has recruited top Democrats and Republicans in the House to advance new sanctions.

The other legislative initiatives that the conference’s attendees were slated to raise during their annual lobbying day Tuesday—when thousands of activists drop in on Capitol Hill for face-to-face conversations with their senators and congressional representatives—are nonbinding resolutions in both houses that call on the Obama administration to review assistance to the Palestinian Authority in light of its pact with Hamas and U.N. initiative for statehood.

The lobbying group also was focused on maintaining current levels of aid for Israel at $3 billion a year and, more broadly, of sustaining foreign aid in general. Republicans and Tea Party leaders for the most part have committed themselves to sustaining those levels of assistance but want to slash foreign aid. AIPAC insiders oppose separating Israel aid from the regular foreign assistance package, saying it would undercut friendliness to Israel overseas and make Jews at home vulnerable to claims of special treatment.

In a video at the launch of the conference, Ester Kurz, the lobby’s legislative director, made clear that AIPAC’s agenda encompasses all foreign aid.

“Foreign aid is only 1 percent of our budget and virtually all of that is spent here at home,” she said.

Rosenberg, the lobby’s president, said sustaining support for Israel faced a threefold challenge: Populations were shifting to the South and West, meaning more change in Congress and to states with fewer Jews; Congress was turning over more rapidly than ever; and political giving is not growing in the pro-Israel community.

“The number of pro-Israel Americans contributing to those campaigns has not increased,” he said. “It is not sustainable.”

AIPAC, Rosenberg said, is now training its activists to be political givers. It was not enough to fund the lobby; activists must fund candidates.

“Being involved in AIPAC and not making financial contributions to politics is like riding a bicycle without pedals,” he said.

A succession of activists then crossed the stage, recounting their journeys from apathy to deep political involvement.

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, told the conference that it was critical to get across the AIPAC message, particularly on Iran, because world attention to the Middle East has been sapped by the Arab Spring.

“In January and February, we had momentum when it came to Iran,” Kohr said. “Then the Arab demonstrations began and the focus shifted. Nations everywhere began dealing with the very legitimate challenges and problems that the turmoil presented, and suddenly the world was not talking about Iran with the same sense of clarity and purpose.”

He went on, “And so, it falls to us: We must refocus our policymakers’ attention on what Iran is doing in this time of turmoil: its efforts to cultivate fifth columns in neighboring nations to advance Iranian ends, its use of terror by proxy, its relentless march toward a nuclear weapon.”

Kohr made it clear that he did not want that agenda clouded by the latest Obama-Netanyahu contretemps.

On May 19, in a Middle East policy speech at the State Department, Obama had said that it was the U.S. position that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be negotiated on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps. Netanyahu immediately countered that those lines were “indefensible.”

Three days later, addressing AIPAC on Sunday morning, Obama made clear that by “definition” any Israeli-Palestinian border would be “different” than the 1967 lines. Netanyahu said he “appreciated” the distinction.

That was good enough for Kohr, who kept on praising Obama’s role in advancing AIPAC initiatives.

“It is so important that America and Israel work out whatever differences arise between them privately, and when tensions do arise that the leaders work together to close those gaps,” he said Monday. “The president’s speech to us yesterday reflected just such an effort to close those gaps.”

Netanyahu, in his speech to the lobby Monday night, also went out of his way to put the matter behind him, praising Obama.

“President Obama has spoken about his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” he said. “He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He spoke of that commitment not just in front of AIPAC but in two speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And President Obama has backed those words with deeds.”

That didn’t stop the politicking, nor did it assuage an AIPAC crowd still shellshocked from the bitterness of just days earlier. Obama earned warm applause for his condemnations of Iran, call to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, denunciations of Hamas and vows of America’s commitment to Israel, but the applause for the president wasn’t as loud as the applause later in the day for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader.

When Cantor, hours after Obama’s AIPAC speech, told the conference crowd that the root of the conflict was Arab hatred of Israel and Jews and “not the ‘67 lines,” he received a 40-second standing ovation. It may have been the biggest cheer of the conference.

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