The pro-Israel lobby has an important message to the American people and to politicians: We are bipartisan.
Shouted out on main stages and whispered in closed-door briefings, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee went to great lengths on the opening day of its conference to combat the perception that it has veered off the bipartisan road.
The message, which has been a mainstay of AIPAC policy for years, gained extra importance this year as the lobby suffered some wounds after advocating a controversial Iran sanctions policy. That policy was mainly backed by Republicans but won only partial support among Senate Democrats and was strongly opposed by President Obama.
“We must affirm bipartisanship in our own ranks if we want support for Israel to be championed by Democrats and Republicans alike,” said Michael Kassen, chairman of AIPAC’s board, in the opening speech at the lobby’s annual policy conference convened in Washington.
This message was repeated time and again. In a closed-door meeting of the lobby’s National Council, a group made up of major AIPAC donors and of representatives of Jewish organizations, council chair Yossi Siegel made clear that the lobby must “create an atmosphere in which everyone can feel at home.” Stating that political diversity is the key to AIPAC’s strength, Siegel told leadership members that if they come across any partisan bickering while lobbying Congress this week or when speaking to elected officials, it is their job as leaders to intervene and make sure the bipartisan spirit is maintained.
The lobby also passed on this message to rank and file members preparing to meet their representatives on Capitol Hill as part of AIPAC’s massive lobbying day planned for Tuesday.
“We just would not be successful if we were not totally bipartisan,” said Stephen Aserkoff, an AIPAC lobbyist, in a briefing to participants.
In order to win back its bipartisan status, AIPAC has chosen a moderate tone in dealing with Iran sanctions. The lobby’s legislative agenda focuses on asking Senators to sign on to a letter, authored by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham, that outlines the needed terms for a final agreement with Iran. Skirting the dispute over the amount of enrichment activity Iran will be allowed to have under such an agreement, the lobby chose a vague term, talking about the need to prevent the Islamic Republic from having “pathways” to nuclear weapons.
“We’re not going to get into the details, if it is zero, fifty or hundreds of centrifuges,” Aserkoff said.
But talk of bipartisanship at the pro-Israel lobby’s conference may have become more difficult as AIPAC delegates took to their cell phones and tablets on Sunday afternoon to read President Obama’s interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Obama did not mince words in the interview, describing the Israeli government’s settlement policy as “aggressive” and urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to move ahead with the peace process. “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” Obama asked rhetorically, in what could only be interpreted as an attempt to prod the Israeli leader to get off the fence and take action.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address the AIPAC conference on Tuesday.
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.