Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave the featured policy addresses before Netanyahu. Pelosi’s followed the traditional script for these affairs. She gave her personal tale and the history of her relationship with the Jewish community and Israel, with an absolute minimum of partisanship and divisiveness. McConnell, however, preceded Pelosi with what some veteran attendees and observers characterized as one of the most partisan and direct attacks on a President and his policies ever heard at an AIPAC Convention. It sounded as if McConnell himself was actually running for President against Obama; not seeking to show the audience how wide the tent was of pro-Israel support.
Enter In Triumph
The Prime Minister’s speech was a clear statement by the Israeli Government that—at least in public—he was not prepared to allow any alternative view except how he explains Israel’s interests. Without even a positive word to the President for their meeting and his speech on Sunday, Netanyahu played to the crowd and ginned up the audience as if it was a pep rally; except the issues and stakes were not football.
Efforts to parse the differences between the Prime Minister and the President on substance—at least in public—were not discernable. Why Netanyahu needed to be as provocative as he was is not clear. Unless there was significant unrevealed disagreement between the two Governments this could have been a moment to bury the hatchet. The only other explanation was that Netanyahu did not want to let up even for one night; or more cynically, there were too many domestic forces that Bibi needed to assuage. If the Bibi was playing American politics in Obama’s back yard, AIPAC could have its work cut out for itself after November, assuming the current polls continue to moving to predict an Obama second term.
The Morning Show
Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, like Leader Pelosi gave a more typical AIPAC speech. He recounted his personal and professional connections with Israel and the pro-Israel community before moving on Iran. Here he reiterated the Administration’s position as presented by the President with Panetta’s own insights from the Pentagon. His speech was classic but too long—certainly for Newt Gingrich. By the time the former Speaker’s remote began, the crowd had left or were in the act of leaving for their lobbying appointments on the Hill. Even so Gingrich’s speech was a flat recounting –as had been Romney and Santorum’s –of what he would do for Israel and had done; but Gingrich even left out the niceties at the top.
Unlike Romney and Gingrich who were beamed into the delegates, Santorum appeared live in the Convention Center. Santorum was greeted initially with reservation by the crowd, but by the time he finished he seemed effectively to have moved the assembled house. Surprisingly, given the audience, at the end it seemed that Romney and Santorum were pulling equally among the delegates.
In fairness to AIPAC planners, the late decision of the three Republican presidential aspirants to seek a personal appearance at the Convention truncated the previously planned morning program. Senators Carl Levin and Johnny Isakson clearly cut their speeches and Secretary Panetta spoke a bit faster but the program was clearly rushed to allow AIPAC to reap the benefits of having the Republicans being noticed as having made their plea before the Jewish community.
As there was no served banquet meal this year, the roll call of attending dignitaries which, although interminable, is one of the most impressive parts of the traditional dinner, was relegated to the absolute end of the evening. Having been left on a high by Bibi, delegates left to attend desert functions or receptions while Howard Kohr and two AIPAC board members droned on through the list of Senators, House Members, etc. This decision by the organizers deprived many of the politicians of some of the community wide recognition which they seek and even crave at this event. While it is at least a 30 minute bore, it used to make the Member and his/her followers the moment in the public eye. Some Members may feel it unnecessary to attend next year or to merely pass through on their way home.
Nothing really seemed to bother the delegates except the food situation and the long lines. It will be curious to see how the AIPAC staff modifies things next year and whether the numbers of non-student delegates continue to grow at the same rate as over the past few years. As expressed by at least some attendees, the size of the conference may have become unwieldy.