Washington - Perhaps the most enthusiastically received speaker at this year’s annual Aipac conference was the fiery evangelical leader Pastor John Hagee. During his speech Sunday night to the 6,000 delegates, he drew no fewer than seven standing ovations, including one that came after he bellowed, “It is 1938, Iran is Germany and Amadinejad is the new Hitler.”
Some observers have criticized the Jewish community’s willingness to work closely with religious conservatives on Israel-related matters, given their right-wing views on a host of other issues. Last week, the New York Jewish Week ran a report quoting two rabbis and a former Aipac official raising concerns over the pro-Israel lobby’s decision to give Hagee a prime speaking slot.
The attendees, however, were thrilled with the pastor’s speech. Hagee, whose ministry is based in San Antonio, sent the crowd into a frenzy, as delegates chanted “Israel lives!”
Several Aipac members told the Forward that they believed the Jewish community must be open to forging unconventional alliances in the face of the threat posed by Iran.
Californian Ruth Brandt, who spoke with the Forward after attending a panel discussion featuring several evangelical leaders on Monday afternoon, said, “Anyone who is worried about abortion, school and whatever, civil rights — we won’t have to worry about it, because the Muslims will have all killed us off first.”
Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had a difficult time getting himself seen and heard at the Aipac conference. Netanyahu — leader of the Likud Party and a chief critic of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — was scheduled only for an appearance in a closed-door forum with the lobby’s donors.
Netanyahu, who focused his talk on the need to divest from companies doing business with Iran, asked to open the session to the press and was initially refused. Only after repeated requests was he allowed to let in members of the Israeli media, as his “personal guests.”
The opposition leader also had a tough time arranging a room for a press conference. According to Israeli and American sources, Aipac refused to allow him to hold the media session in one of the rooms of the convention center. Due to security concerns, he was also not able to hold his press conference at an adjacent coffee shop. The former prime minister turned to a major Jewish group in Washington and asked to use its offices for the meeting. He was turned down once again.
Finally, Netanyahu’s office managed to secure a room for the press conference at the law firm of Bingham McCutchen in downtown Washington.
Another Israeli politician who did not make it to center stage at the conference was the Labor Party’s leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who is known to be on bad terms with Olmert. Peretz is not fluent in English and was scheduled to speak in a small closed meeting with Aipac leaders and major donors. Peretz’s only exposure to the larger Aipac crowd was at the gala dinner, when Olmert acknowledged him at the end of his satellite speech, referring to him as “my friend Amir Peretz.”
Aipac’s executive committee voted down a call for the release of Jonathan Pollard as part of its annual lobbying agenda, citing concerns of raising the “dual loyalty” issue. The amendment to Aipac’s “Action Agenda” was suggested Sunday by Eli Hertz, who is also the board chairman of the media watchdog group known by the acronym Camera. Hertz argued that Aipac should take on the case of Israeli spy Pollard and lobby for his release as a humanitarian issue. Aipac board members disagreed, and Melvin Dow, a former president of the group, said that a fight for the release of Pollard will damage Aipac’s credibility as an American lobby and might trigger a new round of allegations of dual loyalty. Members of the executive committee applauded Dow and voted against the proposed amendment.
The executive committee — which includes Aipac board members and representatives of Jewish groups — did approve several amendments proposed by the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, adding a slightly more hawkish tone to the lobbying agenda. One of the amendments that was approved demanded that Hamas “fulfill,” and not just “accept,” previously signed agreements with Israel. The other amendment calls on the American government to “possibly reduce” foreign aid to countries that do not support America’s interests in the region.
One source in favor of both amendments said that they were passed over the stated objections of some top Aipac officials.
On Monday night, a bevy of presidential contenders — including Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama — held soirees aimed at cementing their friend-of-Israel status and reaching out to potential political donors.
Clinton and Obama both spoke to packed rooms, but the former first lady’s appearance was the bigger draw. Her speech was more hawkish in tone than Obama’s, and it garnered the most enthusiastic applause, reiterating her address at an Aipac dinner in New York last month that the United States should “exercise leverage,” including sanctions and diplomatic engagement, while maintaining a military option.
“We need to stand in a united manner, not just across our own country but with our allies around the world, to make it very clear [to Iran] that no option is off the table,” Clinton roared hoarsely at the jam-packed dessert reception.
Of all the political receptions, Clinton’s seemed to be the most carefully orchestrated as a presidential campaign event. Her hall was festooned with “Let the Conversation Begin” banners and Hillary balloons; a cadre of student volunteers passed out fact-sheets on Clinton’s pro-Israel record, and her speech started with recognition of a list of supporters and ended with mentions of broader campaign themes like global warming and health care, as well as an entreaty to sign the volunteer sheets. When it was all over, the Van Halen anthem “Right Now” played in the background as a sea of people pushed their way out.
A couple of doors down, Obama appeared in a white shirt and a pale- blue tie, and was quickly surrounded by a thick ring of cell phones and digital cameras snapping pictures.
“My position on the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not complicated; I am pro-Israel,” the Illinois senator began. The line drew hearty applause, along with later references to Iran as a “grave threat.”
Obama ended his speech with wistful caution against giving up the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“One of the enemies that we’re going to have to fight is not just terrorism, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas; it’s also cynicism, it’s also the belief that somehow the world as it is cannot be changed, that we are consigned to an endless cycle of violence,” Obama said. “It’s important for us all of us to maintain a space in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls to say that we can do better than our circumstances might currently argue for.”
The compassionate nod toward the Palestinians comes less than two weeks after Obama struck a strongly pro-Israel note in a speech to a group of Aipac supporters in Chicago. The Illinois senator has drawn criticism from some Jewish doves and Palestinian activists who had hoped and expected him to do more in the way of calling for Israeli concessions or pushing for American involvement in the peace process.
On Sunday, during a talk with a small group of Democratic supporters in Muscatine, Iowa, Obama expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” Obama told party activists, according to the Des Moines Register. “If we could get some movement among Palestinian leadership, what I’d like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people.”
At his Aipac reception in Washington, the lawmaker was more specific: “We need to send a clear message that as soon as we have partners within the Palestinian community that are prepared to renounce violence and recognize the State of Israel, and ensure that we are abiding by the agreements that have already been negotiated in the past, there’s going to be a willing partner in Israel, and the United States is going to do everything it can to support those peace efforts.”
Dan Shapiro, an adviser to the Obama campaign, told the Forward that his boss “has always said that the security of Israel should be America’s starting point in the Middle East.” Shapiro continued, “As he restated in his speech [in Chicago] and in Iowa, he also believes that the Palestinian people’s suffering is caused by the Hamas-led government’s refusal to renounce terrorism and join as a real partner in the peace process.”
In addition to the Clinton and Obama events, receptions were held by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware and Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. A joint event was co-hosted by Republican Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Susan Collins of Maine.
Biden was spotted signing autographs in a relatively empty room. He spoke for a couple of minutes, standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd and without a microphone.
The campaign events followed Aipac’s gala dinner, which is traditionally attended by more than half the members of Congress.
Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who came under fire during the 2006 campaign for his past ties to the Nation of Islam, was among the freshmen in attendance.
During lobbying sessions Tuesday, Aipac activists urged lawmakers to sign a letter to the Bush administration calling for an end to all American contacts with members of the Palestinian Authority.
Observers who favor a more intense American role in the peace process are criticizing the letter — which is being circulated by Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada — saying that it essentially calls for an end to talks with moderate Palestinians, including P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. Some Jewish and Christian groups have voiced their objections, including Ameinu, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, Americans for Peace Now and Churches for Middle East Peace.
The letter to Rice calls on the administration to oppose the Palestinian national unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas unless the new government recognizes Israel, renounces terror, and adheres to previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians.
The White House has already made clear that it would not lift its ban on the P.A. until the Palestinian government accepts the three conditions. Yet the White House has also declared that ties would be maintained with Abbas and other moderate Palestinians who accept the three conditions.
Aipac sources rejected claims that the letter should be interpreted as a call for the banning of ties with Abbas, saying it deals only with members of the government and not with the president.
Concerns about the wording of the letter were raised on Capitol Hill, as well. According to congressional sources, staffers for Senators Joe Biden, Richard Lugar and John Kerry spoke with Nelson’s office before the letter began circulating and asked to put in several changes, but their request was turned down. Both Democratic and Republican staffers told the Forward that in the lobbying meetings Tuesday, Aipac members raised the issue of the letter only after making the case for tough action against Iran. The sources agreed that the letter would eventually receive a significant number of co-signers, though it was “off to a slow start,” as one staffer put it.
Outside the Washington Convention Center, earlier Monday evening , two-dozen anti-Aipac protesters and a dozen members of the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Neturei Karta made it clear that any friend of Israel was no friend of theirs.
The anti-Aipac demonstrators, none of whom identified themselves as being Jewish or from Jewish organizations, held signs addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, as well as the possibility of a conflict with Iran. One man held two hand-lettered companion signs: “Twenty-five thousand Jews prefer Iran” and “Don’t Iraq Iran.”
Another demonstrator’s sign warned: “Beware the Hillary/Aipac connection! Get Israel out of our foreign policy.”
*CORRECTION: The print version of this story contained incorrect information about Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee. He did attend Aipac’s policy conference.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.