AIPAC Conference Comes at Crucial Juncture for U.S.-Israel Relations

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 19, 2010.
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The best show in town is about to get even better.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual parley is known for pulling in top names from the administration, Congress and the Israeli government. But this year, the pro-Israel lobby’s policy conference will put many of the key players in the American-Israeli relationship onstage, as relations between the two allies are at a rare pitch of tension.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will get a chance to explain her views on Israel’s settlement activity only 10 days after scolding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a 45-minute phone conversation. Netanyahu himself will take the stage later that day, expecting to receive a needed dose of support before facing President Obama at the White House on March 23. The conference will host hundreds of lawmakers, many of them torn between supporting the administration and wishing to show their friendship to Israel. Some 7,000 AIPAC activists are also expected to attend during the course of the three-day conference.

AIPAC’s annual show of force comes at a crucial time for the organization. The group that prides itself on maintaining strong and intimate ties with any administration has taken the unusual step of openly criticizing the Obama administration’s treatment of the settlement dispute with Israel as a source of “serious concern.” The criticism, in the form of a March 14 official statement, came in response to the administration’s strong and repeated public criticism of Israel’s announcement of new, exclusively Jewish housing construction in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting to reinforce the two allies’ ties.

Immediately after this revelation, Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement but reaffirmed his government’s commitment to continue such construction.

Since Clinton’s March 12 dressing-down of Netanyahu, AIPAC’s call to lower the flames and return to a more friendly way of doing business was echoed by many other major Jewish groups. The calls now seem to have taken root within the administration. The White House and the State Department have toned down their rhetoric, and Clinton even praised Netanyahu’s response to America’s demands regarding building in Jerusalem, calling them “useful.” According to press reports, the prime minister told Clinton that Israel would take “confidence-building measures” in the West Bank but would not announce a building freeze in East Jerusalem.

Pro-Israel activists hope the conference emerges as a pivotal point back toward warmer ties between America and Israel. They certainly want to avoid it becoming a source of deeper conflict caused by AIPAC delegates booing Clinton during her speech, as some commentators have suggested could happen. For these activists, the focus on American-Israeli ties and on the Palestinian issue is a major distraction.

This year, the lobby has built its annual conference, and its entire lobbying agenda around the issue of Iran. When AIPAC activists mount the buses March 23 to go meet their representatives on Capitol Hill, they’ll be carrying an advocacy message that emphasizes Iran as the immediate and current concern.

In lobbying meetings following the conference, AIPAC will also ask members of Congress to complete the new Iran sanctions bill, which has passed both chambers and is now awaiting reconciliation between the two versions in the conference committee. In addition, AIPAC will urge lawmakers to sign a letter to the White House calling for the United States to bypass the United Nations Security Council by enacting sanctions against Iran without waiting for the international body to take action.

Another issue on the lobbying agenda will be reiterating the need to keep up foreign aid to Israel. Activists will also ask their representatives to sign a letter supporting Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations and affirming the strong friendship between the United States and Israel.

AIPAC’s stated mission of strengthening ties between American and Israel could prove to be just a little more difficult this year. While declarations of support for the strong relations poured in from the administration and Congress in the days leading up to the conference, some of Israel’s strongest supporters chose to criticize the Netanyahu government over the settlement dispute. Among those making their reservations public were Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and California Democratic rep. Howard Berman, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Public opinion polls still show that AIPAC is entering its conference with a comfortable level of support among Americans for the Jewish state. According to a new poll by Rasmussen Reports, conducted after Biden’s visit to Israel, the number of Americans who view Israel as an ally of America remains steady. Most Americans also support the idea of military aid to Israel from the United States. At the same time, the poll found that 49% of Americans believe Israel should be required to stop building settlements. Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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