AIPAC summit gets an earful from top political insiders

hollywood, fla. | It would have been easy for Israel advocates to be distracted at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s national summit this week.

To get to the meeting rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, one had to venture past the slot machines and the framed guitars and the Harley Davidson motorcycles on display.

Of course, the presence of high profile political figures Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts helped keep particpiants’ attention.

The significance of the Jewish vote is what brought both Holbrooke and Rice to Florida. Both advisers are well respected in the Jewish community, and could, depending on who wins next week’s election, play leading roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy over the next four years.

The missions for the two advisers in talking to the pro-Israel community were very different.

Rice and the Bush campaign are working to boost the number of Jews, traditionally a Democratic voting bloc, who will back Bush’s re-election because they like his record on Israel.

Holbrooke and the Democrats, however, are working to maintain the voting bloc, and alleviate concerns Jewish voters may have about Kerry’s foreign policy.

In her address to AIPAC, Rice said the Bush administration would rely heavily on support from states that still talk with Yasser Arafat, looking to them to help reform the Palestinian government and pressure Arafat to step aside.

She said Bush would continue to work from his vision outlined on June 24, 2002 — which focused on reforming the Palestinian Authority, isolating Arafat and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 — and was gratified by signals from the Sharon government that he does not see the Gaza withdrawal as an end to the peace process.

Cognizant of strong support for Bush’s Middle East policies among AIPAC loyalists, Holbrooke did not challenge the Republican’s Middle East credentials, but tried to place Kerry on the same tier, emphasizing that both candidates support Israel’s latest strategy.

Holbrooke is considered a front runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration. And if he doesn’t get that post, he is talked about as a possible Middle East envoy.

The two-day summit, which began Oct. 24, drew more than 800 people and brought key leaders from both political parties.

“I think the U.S. officials, whether it’s in the administration or Congress, realize how important relations between Israel and the U.S. are to the United States,” said conference participant Mark Engel, 57, a real estate developer in New York City.