No matter how hard the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tried to keep the 6,000 activists at its conference focused on the consensus issue of Iran's nuclear threat, Republicans and Israeli officials kept bringing up what is likely the most divisive issue of the day.
The equation promoted by those who support continuing the war is simple: Israel's security requires a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and questioning President Bush's policy is tantamount to undermining Israel and the United States.
"When America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said late Monday in a live satellite address from his Jerusalem home that capped the gala dinner. "The friends of Israel know it, the friends who care about Israel know it. They will keep the Americans strong, powerful and convincing."
Vice President Dick Cheney was even more blunt.
"Friends owe it to friends to be as candid as possible," he said. "My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace that is posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave Israel's best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened."
The equation infuriated Democrats.
The sniping on Iraq -- at one point it devolved into scattered boos for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives -- ran counter to AIPAC billing that the event would be an unmatched show of bipartisan support for Israel.
But a spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby powerhouse said the Iraq issue did not detract from the conference's focus.
"Our focus is on the things we're lobbying on," Josh Block said.
The March 12 gala dinner drew half the U.S. Senate and more than half the House. It featured addresses by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), its minority leader.
The next morning, Pelosi and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader, headlined the traditional Tuesday-morning sendoff to the Capitol for a day of lobbying.
McConnell and Boehner also attempted to build support for the administration's recent deployment of more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) made it the centerpiece of his speech.
"There is something profoundly wrong when, in the face of attacks by radical Islam, we think we can find safety and stability by pulling back, by talking to and accommodating our enemies, and abandoning our friends and allies," Lieberman said to a group that he likes to call "family."
"Some of this wrong-headed thinking about the world is happening because we're in a political climate where, for many people, when George Bush says yes, their reflex reaction is to say no," he said. "That is unacceptable."
Democrats, speaking on background, said they were unsettled by how Iraq kept intruding into an event dedicated to securing Israel.
Some top AIPAC officials also appeared appalled by the advocacy for Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.
Amy Friedkin, a past AIPAC president who is close to Pelosi, stared stonily at Cheney's back as he delivered his warning.
The reception to Cheney's speech was lukewarm at best; he earned no more than three standing ovations, and applause was mostly polite.
The attempt to force the Iraq issue into the AIPAC conference appeared coordinated in part by the White House. AIPAC closed Lieberman's session Monday to the press, though it had been touted as being open. That kept his message of support for the troop surge out of the headlines -- for 24 hours.
Lieberman's office distributed the remarks Tuesday, and within minutes they were forwarded to Jewish leaders by the White House liaison to the Jewish community with a note labeling them as "important."
It did not help AIPAC's case for bipartisanship that the lobby this week successfully pressed for the removal of a provision in an Iraq war funding bill that would have required the president to get congressional approval for war against Iran.
Many Democrats favored the provision because it reasserted Congress' constitutional role in declaring war, which some charge Bush has eroded in Iraq. AIPAC and some other Democrats close to Israel feared the clause would restrain Bush as he pushes Iran to come clean about its nuclear program.
"I don't know that you need to put in a supplemental budget bill that you believe in the U.S. Constitution," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a Jewish congressman who supported leaving out the Iran provision. "That should be obvious.
"If you're trying to get a terrorist rogue regime to give up its weapons," he said, "you should get them to think maybe we're as crazy as they think we are." California Democratic Reps. Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Brad Sherman and Jane Harman echoed similar sentiments during a session with state AIPAC delegates.
In total, 1,200 Californians attended the AIPAC conference. The Los Angeles delegation drew 750 attendees, up 50 percent from 2006, said AIPAC Western States Director Elliot Brandt, who added that it was the largest single-city delegation in the country.
On Monday night, Olmert appeared to be making a pitch for removing the Iran provision.
"President George W. Bush is the only leader and the United States is the only country that can be of enormous influence on what the Iranians will do," he said. "They are the only ones that can confront effectively the aggressiveness of the Iranians in their plans to build up nuclear capacity.
"I know that all of you, friends of the State of Israel, well-wishers of the State of Israel, all of you who are concerned about the security and the future of the State of Israel, understand the importance of strong American leadership addressing the Iranian threat, and I am sure you will not hamper or restrain that strong leadership unnecessarily."
Democrats said they were stunned by what they considered Israeli intervention in the U.S. political process.
They weren't the only ones. Officials close to Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who attended the event and gave a closed-door briefing, said he felt Olmert had crossed a line.
Peretz believes Israelis "should not interfere in a democratic process, especially in a country where there is such sensitivity about the democratic process," the officials said.
AIPAC was circumspect. The organization sees the Iran issue "differently" than does Olmert, Block said.
"We're interested in ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons by ensuring that every sanction is used," he said.
To be sure, that was the tone set at the conference.
"Stiff sanctions and targeted divestments -- these will be our focus as we work to keep the pressure on Iran," AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr said, speaking at the same session as Cheney.
The focus was a new sanctions act, co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), its ranking member.
"Chairman Lantos' legislation prohibits Iranian-owned state banks from using the American banking system," Pelosi said in her remarks. "In terms of diplomacy, it proposes that we use our influence with Russia and China to encourage them to join the world community in opposing Iran's nuclear program."
Pelosi delivered her own limited broadside against the Iraq war, saying "any U.S. military engagement must be judged on three counts -- whether it makes our country safer, our military stronger or the region more stable. The war in Iraq fails on all three scores."
That earned her light applause and a few boos.
In the end, however, delegates dropped whatever they felt about Iraq as they ascended the steps of Capitol Hill.
"We lobby on U.S. and Israeli issues," said Eric Zoller, 30, of West Orange, N.J. Touring his state's congressional offices in the Cannon Building for House members, he said Iraq was "no issue."
Benny Schechter, 51, a wholesaler from Coral Gables, Fla., noted Olmert's appeal to make Iraq an issue -- but he rejected it.
"This is not an issue that we want to raise," Schechter said after meeting with Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).
Stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is the bottom line, Schechter said. "If that happens, the war in Iraq means nothing," he said. "We have a limited time and we need to pick what issues are important."
Rachel Mauro and Gabe Ross in Washington contributed to this story.
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