AIPAC conference opens to controversy, starting with John Hagee

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washington | Continuing concerns about a nuclear Iran, mounting international criticism of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby and the recent agreement reinforcing Hamas’ hold on the Palestinian Authority threaten to impart a militant tone to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The conference, which begins Sunday, March 11 in Washington, D.C., opens with a keynote speech by Pastor John Hagee. The pastor is the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), author of several apocryphal books and an outspoken opponent of Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territories.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu are also scheduled to speak. The Israeli government will be represented by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Ambassador Sallai Meridor.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh is expected to tell delegates that increased aid to Palestinian moderates is in Israel’s interests — a position that may conflict with a major theme of AIPAC at the conference.

In a show of political clout and bipartisanship that has become routine for AIPAC, the conference will feature speeches by all four top congressional leaders.

Numerous candidates in the crowded 2008 presidential race also are expected to press the flesh at AIPAC. The two Democratic front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will hold competing receptions at the gathering in an effort to garner early Jewish support.

Attendance could break records this year. AIPAC says that “more than 6,000 pro-Israel activists, including 1,200 students representing 390 campuses” will attend. Sources agree that the conference is likely to set attendance records as pro-Israel forces rally to the cause after a difficult year.

In the weeks before the conference, controversy swirled about the choice of Hagee as the opening night speaker. Giving Hagee such prominence at the premier pro-Israel gathering troubles some AIPAC supporters.

Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas — the home of the John Hagee Ministries and his 18,000-member Cornerstone Church — hopes the minister’s presence will be balanced by “Christians who support Israel but who do not share the ‘end of days’ theology and extremist anti-Palestinian positions and anti-Muslim prejudice frequently spewed by Pastor Hagee.”

AIPAC will again put a heavy emphasis on efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear and on expanding U.S.-Israel cooperation to meet the weapons of mass destruction threat, “especially from Iran.”

Lobbying for tougher sanctions and divestment legislation will be a top priority for AIPAC delegates when they blanket Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 13. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), both scheduled as speakers at the conference, introduced legislation prohibiting investments in Iran by pension plans and requiring U.S. government pension funds to divest in companies doing business with Iran.

Protecting Israel’s big chunk of foreign aid has traditionally been a top priority for AIPAC. This year the group will also emphasize “closely monitoring assistance to countries that are not supporting American objectives in the region.”

At the top of that list: the Palestinian Authority, currently at the center of a fight over a congressional freeze on $86 million in emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Pro-peace groups say they will not press AIPAC to soften its language about the Palestinians. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, will come to the executive committee meeting loaded with amendments aimed at toughening them.

With the Reform movement set to vote Monday, March 12 on a resolution sharpening its opposition to the Iraq war, the Republican Jewish Coalition jumped to the Bush administration’s defense with an aggressive campaign to thwart what the group calls a “dangerous and wrong-headed resolution opposing US efforts in Iraq.”

But the partisan group faces tough going. Recent data shows Jews “overwhelmingly” opposed to the Bush administration’s policy in the conflict.

The proposed resolution demands a “timetable for the phased and expeditious withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq,” opposes President Bush’s “escalation” and calls for resumed “reconciliation talks with the full range of Iraq’s political leaders.”

Jewish Democrats scoffed at the Republican Jewish Coalition campaign.

“If you read the polls, these guys don’t even represent the views of most Republican Jews,” said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “And now they are picking a fight with the largest Jewish domination in America — it’s like Pee Wee Herman trying to pick a fist fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

The issue of U.S. pressure on the Israeli government not to talk to Syria continues to ricochet around Washington — and has found its way into the 2008 presidential contest.

Obama, who is drawing the biggest crowds in early campaigning, outlined his position on Israel at a recent AIPAC meeting in Chicago.

The speech, intended to establish a strong pro-Israel baseline for the liberal senator, generally stuck close to standard AIPAC talking points.

“We should take no option, including military action, off the table, and show strong support for Israel’s actions in last summer’s war against Hezbollah,” Obama said.

But tucked into the speech was an apparent reference to persistent stories in Israel that U.S. pressure against any response to Syrian peace overtures has been fierce. “We should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests,” he said.

While foreign policy circles are buzzing about the U.S. squeeze, it won’t get much play at the AIPAC policy conference.

But several leading Jewish activists say AIPAC’s silence on the issue is justified by the ambivalent position of the Israeli government.

“We are concerned about reports that Washington is telling Israel not to talk to Syria,” said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum. “We feel that if Israel wants to talk to Syria, it should have the flexibility to do so without U.S. interference.”

But Reich said that “mixed signals” about the U.S. pressure from the Olmert government have limited the response from pro-Israel groups that usually object to the slightest hint of pressure from Washington.