Peace, politics in the mix for 500 at AIPAC conference

On a day of many entertainment options in the Bay Area, a huge crowd of 500 turned out for the AIPAC "Northern California Politics and Policy Conference" on Sunday in San Francisco.

And those who chose the AIPAC event over the Giants or A's baseball game, the 49ers football game or one of several local street fairs emerged the more educated for it.

The seven-hour conference at the Westin St. Francis Hotel was jam-packed with experts talking about Israel, weapons buildup in the Middle East, the peace process and the upcoming presidential election.

The big crowd included Jews with a wide range of political viewpoints and Jews from religious movements across the spectrum, said Elliot Brandt, the director of AIPAC's Pacific Northwest regional office in San Francisco.

Roxanne Cohen, director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Business and Professionals Division, praised the organizers for presenting a "very well-done" event.

"The timing was on their side as far as issues relating to the peace process and the election," she said. "People were very curious and were able to get an insider's look at what was going on."

Perhaps the best perspective from an insider was provided by the day's first speaker, David Makovsky, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post.

A senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report, Makovsky offered details on why the peace process is teetering on the brink of collapse.

He pinned the blame for the lack of an agreement at the Camp David talks in July on Yasser Arafat, and hinted there might never be a treaty as long as Arafat is alive.

"I'm not allowed to give out names, but my understanding is that Arafat was in the minority in his own delegation," Makovsky said. "Most of the people in his own delegation thought he should grab it."

Makovsky contended that Arafat is "the revolutionary who is not able to become the nation-builder."

Saying there are only a few men in recent times who could do both, such as David Ben-Gurion in Israel and Jawaharlal Nehru in India, he rapped the Palestinian leader.

"Maybe Arafat is just incapable and we will have to wait for a new generation."

After listening to Makovsky, people attended one of four breakout forums, then returned to the main hall for the lunch plenary. Afterward, there were more forums and a speech by Rep. Howard Berman (D-L.A.).

AIPAC stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and is one of the most influential lobbying groups in the United States. Rob Bassin, the organization's national political director, said AIPAC is currently meeting with every candidate that has even a slim chance of being elected to serve in Washington this year. AIPAC is asking them to issue an Israel position paper "so we know where they stand."

During lunch, Republican commentator Dan Schnur joked about where he thought most of Sunday's crowd stood.

"The Republican caucus of AIPAC will be meeting directly after this conference ends," he said, pausing for effect and then delivering the punch line. "We'll be meeting in my car."

The humorous Schnur sparred with the more serious Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman from Los Angeles who is co-chair of Al Gore's Middle East advisory committee.

Levine hammered George W. Bush's stance on Israel, saying the candidate "has the luxury of having no record on these issues."

He said observers must "look at the people surrounding Bush," adding that Bush's foreign relations advisory team has a track record "that was shaped during the Cold War."

Schnur responding by saying that the team surrounding Bush is "committed to protecting Israel and the U.S. relationship with Israel."

Schnur did his best to go to bat for Bush, but even he admitted he was swimming in rough waters.

"When I was first contacted by AIPAC to be the Jewish Republican [here], I thought 'What could make it any more difficult?'" he said, again pausing for effect. "Thank you, Senator Lieberman."

Schnur did praise Gore's choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, however, as being the main source of Gore's resurgence in the polls.

"By publicly demonstrating his willingness to take a strong stand, and not play it cautious and safe, Gore caught the public's attention," Schnur said. "There's no question Lieberman has had a liberating effect on the Gore campaign.

"I mean, if I heard one more time about the 'Bridge to the 21st century,' I was going to run to the TV and put a brick through the set."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.