Speechgate overshadows AIPACs strategy on Iran

For all its focus on Iran, AIPAC couldn’t seem to get away from the controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Speaking to more than 16,000 attendees March 1 at the launch of the largest-ever annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, CEO Howard Kohr acknowledged the elephant in the room.

“There’s no question that the way this speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats,” Kohr said. “It frankly may have upset people in this room. All of us should be concerned [who] care about the bipartisan nature of the relationship.”

The notion that anyone attending an AIPAC event might be unhappy with the sitting Israeli prime minister has not haunted the organization since the early 1990s, when it suffered the opprobrium of the late Yitzhak Rabin, who thought AIPAC overly aggressive in its tactics.

Netanyahu arranged his speech with Republican leaders in Congress while agreeing to keep it a secret from the White House, congressional Democrats and the pro-Israel community, including AIPAC, until just before it was announced.

In his speech to the premiere pro-Israel lobby on March 2, Netanyahu expressed few regrets for going ahead as planned with his controversial speech to Congress.

“I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel: security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the United Nations,” Netanyahu said in remarks that drew multiple standing ovations. However, he said his differences with the Obama administration over the course of Iran nuclear talks were too important not to take up the offer to speak to Congress.

“I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them,” he said.

Netanyahu said he regretted that the speech had been “misperceived” as partisan and said bipartisan support for Israel was critical.“Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue,” he said.

AIPAC’s legislative agenda, which in past years has featured an Iran component along with components on the Middle East peace and the U.S.-Israel alliance, this year focused only on Iran.

On March 3, the last day of the conference, many of the attendees visited Capitol Hill to promote two bills and a letter related to the Iran nuclear talks. They sought co-sponsors for a Senate bill that would add sanctions should Iran walk away from the talks, but did not press for a vote, deferring to Democrats who back the bill but want to wait out a late-March deadline for an Iran nuclear deal.

The activists also sought support for a new Senate bill that would subject any agreement with Iran to congressional approval. Both bills have bipartisan support, although Obama has said he will veto them.

Finally, AIPAC asked members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter initiated by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), its ranking Democrat, urging the president to subject any Iran deal to congressional evaluation.

AIPAC leaders marked a subtle difference between their approach and that of Netanyahu, who has suggested that the talks are inherently flawed. AIPAC instead wants to increase congressional oversight of the process.

“The ability to look at this to submit it for approval or disapproval is a critical role for Congress to play,” Kohr said.

AIPAC had wanted to use the conference and its massive lobbying finale to shore up support for the Iran bills among Democrats. But Netanyahu’s speech kept getting in the way.

  Nearly half (48 percent) of American voters believe that Republican lawmakers should not have invited Israel’s prime minister to speak to Congress without first notifying Obama, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found, while 30 percent believed the invitation proffered by Republican House Speaker John Boehner was appropriate.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief