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AIPAC’s Convention Starts as Iran Sanctions Debacle Still Looms Large

It may not the best timing for convening 14,000 supporters of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. And it’s not just because another snow storm is bearing down on the nation’s capital or because participants will have to make a tough choice between showing their support for Israel and watching their favorite Hollywood stars walking the red carpet on Oscars night.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference kicking off Sunday will take place too close to the lobby’s recent defeat in gaining support for passing a new sanctions bill against Iran in the Senate. Pro-Israel lobbyists are also meeting at a moment in which the U.S.-brokered Middle East peace plan is still in flux, making it difficult for AIPAC to find the right tone to address Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative.

As a result, AIPAC is entering its annual confab with a looser legislative agenda than usual, that circles around the issue of Iran and that does not delve into the details of the Middle East peace process.

Still, the gathering will serve as an important opportunity to mend fences with the Obama administration on Iran and to correct the impression held by some in the Democratic Party, that AIPAC has shifted away from its stated bipartisan path.

Advocating for increased sanctions on Iran has been a cornerstone of AIPAC lobbying agenda for the past decade.

This year, with an interim agreement between Iran and the major powers in effect, the debate over further sanctions has become more complicated. Faced with vigorous opposition from the administration, led personally by President Obama, AIPAC failed in obtaining enough votes to pass a new sanctions resolution in the Senate and retreated to a position supporting sanctions but agreeing to delay putting the new bill to a vote.

Even after the setback, AIPAC is not giving up on the bill. When descending on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the thousands of AIPAC supporters attending the conference will ask Senators to add their signature as co-sponsor of the bill. AIPAC will not ask the co-signers to commit to an immediate vote.

“The more bipartisan, the stronger the message that the Iranians will receive,” said a senior AIPAC official. “We want to get to the strongest number [of co-sponsors] and it’s worth the wait.”

AIPAC officials would not offer a target for a number of co-sponsors that would trigger a new push for an immediate vote. They did stress, however, that the debate over further sanctions against Iran did not end and that after the conference is over the lobby will look at the Senate numbers and asses its way forward on the issue.

In the House, efforts to formulate a bipartisan non-binding resolution supporting further sanctions on Iran have also hit a snag and the lobby is likely to ask, as a fallback position, for even less binding congressional letters to the administration.

A moderate approach to the Iran sanctions issue could help de-escalate tensions with the administration and with Democrats who were asked by the lobby to back legislation which clearly defies the president’s wish.

Another opportunity for patching relations with the Obama administration is expected to come through support for Secretary Kerry’s efforts to promote an Israeli – Palestinian peace plan. Kerry plans to present his framework to Israelis and Palestinians by the end of the month, and since details of the plan have not yet been finalized, the lobby will not take on at this point the specifics of any possible future arrangement.

AIPAC, which will host Kerry as a keynote speaker on Monday shortly after President Obama’s meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, will make clear it supports Kerry’s work in no uncertain terms. AIPAC’s public backing for Kerry could be valuable to the administration which has witnessed in recent months a barrage of attacks, some of them personal, against Kerry from Israeli officials and activists who distrust his drive to broker a peace plan with the Palestinians.

Kerry is expected to clarify in his speech on Monday a remark he made on February 1 which was interpreted by some in Israel as using the threat of an international boycott against Israel as way of pressuring Israel into concessions.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, which has recently gained attention, is expected to play major role in AIPAC’s conference this year. AIPAC intends to highlight the dangers of BDS and to ask Congress to take action against attempts to boycott Israel, including those led by Palestinians in international bodies.

The lobby had even tried to get actress Scarlet Johansson to participate in the annual conference in Washington.

But Johansson, who emerged as a pro-Israel heroine after her refusal to withdraw her Soda Stream ad, politely declined. Maybe she has better things to do — like attend the Oscars.

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