A troubled but still potent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) got a boost this week from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who addressed its largest-ever policy conference in Washington, with a record 4,500 delegates gathered for three days of speeches, workshops, schmoozing and lobbying.
And the pro-Israel lobby giant, in turn, gave Sharon what he wanted most: an explicit endorsement of his government's imminent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, backed up by a Tuesday lobbying effort that urged lawmakers to continue U.S. support for the plan. This week's events lay the groundwork for expected new requests for U.S. aid to Israel, to help carry out the disengagement.
AIPAC, which like other major pro-Israel groups has been accused of being tardy and unenthusiastic in its support for the disengagement, was careful to signal support without allowing the plan and the emotional debate over it to become the centerpiece of the high-profile conference.
Unswayed by outbursts of heckling when Sharon spoke on Tuesday, the AIPAC leadership explicitly endorsed his plan in a resolution approved by the executive committee as part of the group's 2005 "action agenda."
The committee overwhelmingly rejected amendments offered by Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein that would have "spelled out the costs" of the Gaza "expulsion of Jews," according to the ZOA leader.
Natan Sharansky, former minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs addressed the crowd but did not talk about the reason for his resignation from the Sharon government -- or his unhappiness over the Gaza plan.
And AIPAC sessions on the Gaza disengagement were "fair and reasonably effective in making the case for what the Prime Minister is doing," said an official of a dovish Jewish group attending the conference.
"Given differences within the AIPAC membership over the Gaza disengagement," said the source, who requested anonymity, "I think they did a good job of showing support and lining up the membership behind the prime minister."
But a former AIPAC official, also speaking not for attribution, characterized the group's endorsement as unenthusiastic.
"The real story is that they were forced to make a statement supporting it as part of the price for getting Sharon to speak to them," the source said. "The mood in the hall was skeptical -- that was evident every time a speaker mentioned it -- but they had no choice."
From the rostrum, speakers praising Sharon's plan produced limited applause or stony silence; scattered through the vast convention center were delegates wearing the blank orange buttons signifying solidarity with Gaza residents opposed to the pullout.
Several hecklers were ejected when Sharon addressed the conference on Tuesday, promising to carry out the disengagement "according to the timetable and the decisions authorized by the Government," and to work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "as long as we do not risk our security. That is the red line."
Sharon promised that the disengagement "will increase Israel's security and reduce friction between the Palestinians and us. It will help advance our national strategic interests, promote our economy and prosperity and advance the development of the Negev and the Galilee."
And he strongly endorsed the international quartet's "road map" for Palestinian statehood, calling it "the only political plan for a peaceful solution with the Palestinians."
But he also emphasized that the road map will be implemented in stages and that "true peace will only be realized after full security is achieved and terrorism is eliminated."
As a goodwill gesture, he announced plans to release an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners.
Ardent peace groups praised AIPAC for standing behind Sharon.
"They did the right thing," said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum. "AIPAC's highly visible support for the Prime Minister's disengagement plan sends an important message to the administration and to Congress."
And that includes to members who might be inclined to erect roadblocks to U.S. support for the Gaza plan, he said.
AIPAC delegates had more than 450 lobbying appointments on Tuesday; support for the plan, along with continuing U.S. aid to Israel and stronger efforts to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program, were at the top of their agenda.
"We're very pleased that AIPAC has given its formal endorsement to the U.S. government's support for the disengagement initiative," said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. "This new policy position reflects the broad backing that disengagement enjoys in the American Jewish community and in Israel. "
AIPAC Still Packs Them In
AIPAC policy conferences are always exercises in political theater scripted to make a point about the group's power.
But the stakes were higher than ever this year as AIPAC friends and foes alike looked for signs that the ongoing federal investigation of two fired AIPAC employees over leaked classified documents have put a dent in AIPAC's presence on Capitol Hill.
There was no sign of weakness at Monday's banquet, attended by almost enough senators to invoke cloture: 55, about the same as 2004. They were joined by 215 members of the House, up from 177 a year ago -- by several accounts an all-time record.
The turnout reflected congressional confidence AIPAC will emerge unscathed from the current investigation -- and also an extensive grass-roots effort by the group to encourage attendance.
During AIPAC's famous "roll call," congressional guests were greeted with ovations ranging from the tepid to the tumultuous (Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, R-RI, widely seen as cool toward Israel, produced barely a ripple; Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., almost brought the house down).
All four top congressional leaders spoke to the Monday night gathering in speeches that generally stuck close to AIPAC's talking points for the week: assurances of continuing U.S. support for Israel, warnings to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to do more than just talk about curbing terrorism and sober words about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program.
Also in attendance were administration officials, top political party leaders and numerous members of the diplomatic corps, most notably two envoys from Libya.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic National
Committee, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, filling in for Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, addressed the group on Sunday night, agreeing on the need for strong U.S.-Israel relations but disagreeing on which party can best maintain them.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, signaling that the administration does not regard the pro-Israel lobby group as treif because of its ongoing troubles, received strong applause when she said the administration's goal of democracy in the Middle East is "unassailable and incontrovertible," and urged the Palestinians to "advance democratic reforms and dismantle all terrorist networks" as it pursues statehood.
But she was greeted with only faint applause when she said that Prime Minister Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan "presents an unprecedented and incredibly delicate opportunity for peace and we must all work together to capitalize on this precious moment."
Rice also praised the recent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but said "Syria must also remove its intelligence forces and allow the Lebanese people to be free."
Worries Over Federal Probe
Although no charges have been filed against the fired AIPAC employees being investigated by federal authorities, the controversy shadowed the conference and produced anxiety among delegates and the numerous Jewish leaders who came to show their support for the lobby group.
"There's anxiety; there's a cloud over [AIPAC]," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "So it is important for leaders of the American Jewish community to be here and show support."
Foxman expressed the view of many conference attendees.
"There are so many things we don't know, so many unanswered questions about the investigation," he said.
"What's remarkable is how they have been able to keep this conference focused on their big issues like Iran and terrorism," a former AIPAC official said. "But you hear a lot of talk about [the investigation] in the hallways. Mostly, it's people asking what's going to happen next. And none of us has any real answers. I'm not sure AIPAC's top officials know."
A member of the large Los Angeles delegation downplayed the effect of the probe on AIPAC's lobbying juggernaut.
"I'm not concerned about the health of the organization," said Lee Zeff, a Realtor from Beverly Hills. "I'm not concerned about the reputation in Congress."
As evidence, Zeff noted the veritable waiting list of congressional leaders lined up to address the conference.
Zeff added that the delegates were not especially focused on the FBI probe: "People are thinking about Iran. People are thinking about Hezbollah ... Hamas...."
Zeff's wife, Linda Macdonald, who is not Jewish, did express concern, particularly about misconceptions she's noticed among relatives in her native England. From the soundbites they've heard, she reported, people are assuming AIPAC was involved in spying. As a result, Macdonald said, she's found herself doing more public relations for both AIPAC and Israel.
AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr addressed the undercurrent of worries in an opening speech on Sunday, repeating his claim that "we now know -- directly from the government -- that neither AIPAC nor any of its current employees is or ever has been the target of this investigation."
And he pledged to "take the steps necessary to ensure that every employee of AIPAC, now and in the future, conducts themselves in a manner of which you can be proud -- using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and maintain our effectiveness."
Additional reporting courtesy of Washington Jewish Week.