Washington — (JTA) — You’ve got your rousing church choir, your multi-denominational trio of rabbis quoting Torah, your montages of Israelis and Palestinians coming together and, above all, your pleas to please, please, please be nice to one another.
Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, Jew, Christian, black, white, Hispanic – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee wants you all to feel welcome under its big, pro-Israel tent.
That was the resounding theme of this week’s annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.
Expansive outreach, of course, is nothing new for AIPAC. But in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.
“We must affirm bipartisanship in our own ranks if we want support for Israel to be championed by Democrats and Republicans alike,” Michael Kassen, AIPAC’s chairman, said at the conference’s outset on Sunday. “AIPAC’s political diversity is critical to our continued success.”
AIPAC in recent weeks has been bruised by deep differences between Republicans and most Democrats over how best to deal with Iran while nuclear talks are underway. Republicans back new sanctions as a means of strengthening the United States’ hand in the talks, and many congressional Democrats, heeding the White House, oppose them, saying they could scuttle not only talks with Iran but the international coalition that brought the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table.
AIPAC had been working to bring a new Iran sanctions bill to a Senate vote until backing down last month after it became clear that it lacked enough Democratic support to overcome a promised presidential veto. In the aftermath, Republicans were angry with AIPAC for backing away from its push for a vote, while congressional Democrats resented AIPAC’s pressure on them to break with President Obama on the issue.
The result has been an unusual vacuum for the lobby: The thousands of activists who headed to Capitol Hill Tuesday were not advocating for any new legislation. Instead they were seeking signatories for letters from lawmakers in both chambers asking Obama to make sure that Iran complies with the nuclear inspection and verification regimes mandated by the U.N. Security Council.
Additionally, they will advocate for a bill that would enhance security assistance to Israel, something they had already championed a year ago. That bill has been delayed in part because of difficulties with a provision that would allow Israeli citizens to enter the United States without visas.
The activists will also seek additional sponsors for the Iran sanctions bill, although they will not press for a quick vote.
At the policy conference, AIPAC officials did not shy from tough talk when it came to Iran. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, focused his speech Sunday morning on countering the Obama administration arguments. He took aim particularly at Obama’s claim that new sanctions could upend the negotiations. “Pressure brought Iran to the table, and only increasing pressure could bring about a deal,” he said.