Heavy hitters line up for upcoming AIPAC conference

If there’s any doubt about AIPAC being the belle of Washington, check out next week’s ball.

The lobbying powerhouse’s conference — to be held Monday, June 2 to Wed-

nesday, June 4 — is the only policy event since the presidential election campaign was launched that has attracted all three major candidates: Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain.

The conference comes on the heels of a spate of Middle East-related dust-ups involving Obama and McCain.

They have engaged in a bruising battle over Iran policy. McCain favors increased isolation for Iran. Obama favors what he calls tough diplomacy and direct negotiations. Both are casting their arguments in terms of what’s better for Israel.

The candidates are unlikely to tamp things down in time for next week.

“Senator Obama will continue to describe his strong support for Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and his concern about how Israel’s security has not been enhanced by the current administration’s policies, and how his policies will advance U.S. national security interests and also Israel’s security,” said a senior aide to the candidate who asked not to be named.

Ann Lewis, a senior Clinton adviser, said, “This is like the Super Bowl for those of us who care about Israel and foreign policy. For Hillary it’s like having a conversation with old friends.”

Lewis did not have details of Clinton’s AIPAC speech, but said the candidate would likely emphasize her deep ties with the pro-Israel community.

The McCain campaign did not respond in time for publication, but it seemed clear he also would not be sparing.

In a nuclear policy speech May 27 in Denver, McCain subtly revived his contention that Obama is downplaying the Iran threat.

“We have seen Iran marching, marching with single-minded determination toward the same goal, authenticated again today by the [International Atomic Energy Agency],” the U.N. nuclear regulatory body, McCain said at the outset. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he continued, “has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and represents a threat to every country in the region — one we cannot ignore or minimize.”

For her part, Clinton counts the pro-Israel community as a redoubt of support in her increasingly unlikely bid to claim the Democratic nomination and has made clear she will not cede it. In the last debate with Obama, Clinton said she would “obliterate” the Iranian regime should it launch a nuclear strike against Israel.

The trio of candidates isn’t the only draw to what promises to be a crowded three days: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will defend the Bush administration in its waning days, and the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress also plan to speak.

It marks a pleasant change for AIPAC, which has been dogged in recent years by critics who have accused the lobby of helping the Bush administration win support for the Iraq War, even though lawmakers have denied repeatedly that AIPAC played any role in rallying congressional backing for the war.

More substantially, AIPAC is scoring major lobbying successes in Congress. A bill under consideration that would create certification to show that Israel is maintaining a qualitative military edge in the region already has garnered major support.

And while the Democrat-controlled Congress and Bush are deadlocked over just about every major budget issue, lobbyists at AIPAC are confident that Congress will adopt the president’s plan this year to start increasing assistance to Israel from an average of $2.4 billion annually to $3 billion.

The policy forum’s highlight is its

dinner Tuesday, June 3 at the cavernous Washington Convention Center, which organizers say is the largest seated meal in the nation’s capital. AIPAC leaders call out the roster of lawmakers in attendance and usually garner a bipartisan majority of both houses, underscoring the group’s main point: support for Israel crosses the aisle.

More than 7,000 people are expected to attend, including 1,200 students.

Ron Kampeas

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