The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC managed to kick off its annual policy conference without even one mention of the 800-pound gorilla in the room — the latest spat between the U.S. and Israel over building in East Jerusalem.
The opening plenary showcased Israel’s quest for peace, spoke of the Jewish state as a world leader in innovation and technology, and dealt with the Iranian nuclear threat. Not a word about Ramat Shlomo, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where a new round of approved building became a flashpoint between the two allies. And nothing on the now-famous, testy conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But that is not to say AIPAC leaders are ignoring the issue.
One concern is how the more than 7,000 delegates will greet Clinton when she takes to the podium Monday morning. The blogosphere is swarming with speculation that she will be booed by some in the crowd.
AIPAC’s president David Victor is already prepared to address this issue. He is scheduled to speak Monday just before Clinton. On Sunday, he practiced his speech in front of an empty hall, but thanks to the AIPAC staff who piped the dry-run through the convention center’s TV system, reporters could get a preview of his remarks.
Victor will call on AIPAC delegates to treat all guests cordially. “We are not here to protest, we are here to win policy,” the speech will read. While it is fine to ask tough questions, Victor is scheduled to say, “we always need to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our organization.”
The last time AIPAC delegates were reminded to treat their guests properly was at the group’s 2008 conference. The lobby hosted all three candidates running for President at the time — Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain — and organizers were concerned that politics might take over what should be a bipartisan show of support for Israel. But if the first day of AIPAC’s 2010 conference can serve as an indication of what will happen Monday, the delegates did not seem inclined to voice any protest. Instead, they listened politely to a panel of experts moderated by Dan Senor, applauded each time the phrase “military option” was mentioned in the context of dealing with Iran, and broke into standing ovation when Senator Evan Bayh came out against those who criticized Israel’s actions against terror attacks.
Even the protests outside the conference center did not succeed in creating much of a provocation. Delegates passed by a small group of Code Pink activists who put on a show which included one member dressed as a pregnant Palestinian woman crying for help at an Israeli checkpoint and another, dressed as an Israeli soldier, refusing to let her through. Across the road stood a handful of protestors from the antisemitic Westboro Baptist Church carrying signs reading “God hates the Jews.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is 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.