AIPAC meeting wasnt supposed to be partisan, but

washington | AIPAC’s annual policy conference is truly a come-one, come-all event, with a “roll call” at the gala dinner announcing the hundreds of VIPs in attendance. But this year, one uninvited guest kept turning up: the Iraq war.

No matter how hard the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tried to keep the record 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.

Even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert weighed in — via a live satellite address — calling for Jews to support the president’s war effort.

Vice President Dick Cheney was rather blunt.

“My friends,” he said, “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 AIPAC Democrats.

The sniping on Iraq — at one point devolving into scattered boos for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) — ran counter to AIPAC billing that the event would be an unmatched show of bipartisan support for Israel.

But Cheney, who stopped just short of accusing Democrats of sedition, hardly struck a bipartisan tone in defending the war.

He accused Democrats who voted for congressional resolutions opposing the war of “not supporting the troops — they are undermining them.”

When Pelosi spoke Tuesday, March 13, she didn’t mention her opposition to the war until the very end of her 25-minute speech. In that lone reference, she said, “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, but overall she reportedly got more applause and standing ovations than any other speaker.

She spoke immediately after House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who received a standing ovation when he defended the war as vital to both to the United States and Israel. “Who does not believe that failure in Iraq is not a direct threat to the state of Israel?” he asked.

At its dinner, AIPAC drew half the U.S. Senate and more than half of the House. It also featured addresses by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), its minority leader.

McConnell and Boehner 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, saying, “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.

“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.’ 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 appeared appalled by the advocacy for Bush’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.

The reception to Cheney’s speech was lukewarm at best; he earned no more than three standing ovations, and applause was mostly polite.

San Franciscan Amy Friedkin, an AIPAC past president who is close to Pelosi, stared stonily at Cheney’s back as he delivered his warning.

Nevertheless, AIPAC delegates deeply appreciate the unprecedented support the Bush administration has shown Israel. The administration’s high marks — isolating the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, steadfast support for Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah and the tough U.S. posture against Iran — were noted by AIPAC President-elect David Victor, who introduced Cheney.

Indeed, Cheney’s references to those issues earned him his strongest unfettered applause.

The attempt to force the Iraq issue into the AIPAC conference appeared coordinated in part by the White House.

AIPAC never explicitly supported or lobbied for the Iraq war, but some in the pro-Israel community once saw the war as an effort that would more closely align the United States and Israel against a common enemy: Arab and Muslim radicalism.

Additionally, it was considered churlish to deny support to the Middle East policy of a president who is so profoundly pro-Israel.

Those views are now unraveling with the ongoing violence in Iraq. Participants attending an AIPAC session on the “global reach of the terrorist network” said Brookings Institution expert Daniel Benjamin drew applause when he blamed the war for opening up the gates of terrorism.

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 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.”

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told delegates that “stiff sanctions and targeted divestments — these will be our focus as we work to keep the pressure on Iran.”

Speaking at the opening session, Kohr said AIPAC would be lobbying the next day for new legislation, the Iran Counterproliferation Act of 2007, proposed by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“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.”

AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said the Iraq issue did not detract from the conference’s focus “on the things we’re lobbying on.”

Whatever the delegates felt about Iraq was put aside 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, from Coral Gables, Fla., said stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is the bottom line.

“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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Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.