Washington — This past week, an unusual letter was sent out to the 7,000 delegates expected to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s upcoming annual conference. Reflecting the heightened political tension surrounding the gathering in this campaign year, organizers from Aipac effectively told those planning to attend on June 2 to behave themselves better than they had last year.
“We ask that you act and react to every speech, address, and briefing that will be offered as part of the conference program in only the most positive manner,” the letter urges expected attendees. Each speaker, the letter advises, should walk away with the feeling “that we have done everything we can to extend our hand in friendship.”
Left out of the letter was the impetus for such a warning: At last year’s annual conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received scattered boos when she spoke about the problems created by the war in Iraq. Organizers appear determined to avoid such political statements at this year’s event, which will be attended by presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Aipac’s annual conference is viewed by many top politicians as a strong opportunity to burnish pro-Israel credentials. At the same time, the policy set by the lobby during the conference is viewed by many in the Jewish community as a yardstick by which to judge the presidential candidates’ views on Israel.
All three candidates are expected to feel comfortable with the lobby’s views on issues related to Israel, which are considered to range from mainstream to hawkish. But that is not to say that they do not differ on some issues of major importance to Aipac delegates.
Obama is at odds with Aipac in his willingness to enter into talks with Iran. The Illinois senator has said that pursuing negotiations with leaders in Tehran should be part of American policy on Iran and the alleged threat posed by its nuclear program. Aipac, on the other hand, does not encourage talks with Tehran.
A draft obtained by the Forward of the lobby’s 2008 policy “Action Agenda” calls on the administration to designate Iran and North Korea as “major national security threats” and to take “all appropriate measures to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.”
The “Action Agenda,” is voted on each year by the group’s executive committee, in which members of all major Jewish organizations are represented. The agenda is expected to be approved June 2, before the formal opening of the conference.
In addition, the policy paper makes no reference to the possibility of talks with Syria, a recent development that has been viewed positively by Obama and Clinton as well as by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will attend the conference. Clinton, according to a campaign official quoted recently by The Jerusalem Post, favorably views Israel’s decision to launch peace talks with Syria.
Aipac’s policy agenda favors “conditioning of U.S. relations with Syria on the ending of its support for terrorism and promoting incitement against Israel and giving up its weapons of mass destruction.” The policy paper, it is worth noting, was written before revelations last month of official talks between Jerusalem and Damascus. An Aipac representative said May 28 that the lobby supports any effort made by Israel to reach peace with Syria.
On other Iran-related matters, all three candidates seem to be in accord with Aipac’s formal policy, which calls for tough diplomatic and financial measures in order to pressure Tehran. Obama was among the original Senate co-sponsors of legislation calling for divestment from companies doing business with Iran.
Likewise, all three candidates have a strong record of supporting American foreign aid to Israel, an issue that traditionally tops Aipac’s legislative agenda.
The run-up to the annual conference has not been without its controversies. On May 26, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former Carter administration official who in the past has given advice to the Obama campaign, made remarks portraying Aipac as opposed to a two-state solution. Brzezinski added that there is a “McCarthyite tendency” among some in the Jewish community to suppress views questioning America’s relations with Israel.
The Obama campaign distanced itself from the former national security adviser, making clear that “Brzezinski is not an adviser to our campaign, and does not speak for the campaign. Senator Obama profoundly disagrees with the sentiments he expressed in this interview.”
Another issue expected to be raised at the upcoming Aipac conference is the Iraq War. The lobby has no formal standpoint on the war, and has gone to great efforts to rebuff claims that it played an encouraging role in the run up to it.
At last year’s gathering, Vice President Dick Cheney called on the pro-Israel community to support the administration’s standpoint on the war. His view was echoed at the same conference by Olmert. This year, judging by previous speeches that candidates have given to Jewish audiences, Obama and Clinton are expected to stress the negative effect the war has had on Israel’s strategic standing in the region, while McCain will portray the war as part of a global effort to counter terrorism.
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.