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AIPAC tries to keep the focus on policy
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AIPAC tries to keep the focus on policy

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had two different themes that were really part of a single message. 

Every major speaker at the conference, from Prime Minister Netanyahu to U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to members of the House and Senate, reiterated that there was no gap between the United States and Israel, and that the bipartisan relationship stands inviolable. 

Everyone was working to repair the damage caused by Netanyahu’s decision to accept House Speaker Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress and the Obama administration’s pushback. All seemed to want to return the focus to the substance of the Iranian nuclear weapons deliberations in Geneva. While the relationship between the United States and Israel on defense and intelligence matters should be fine, only time will tell how long it will take for the two allies to put the political relationship back together.

The other theme was expressed in AIPAC’s theme for the conference, “This is Israel.” This slogan was accompanied by photos and graphics throughout the convention center depicting some of the truly impressive images of Israel: natural beauty, human diversity, technological innovation. Apparently, AIPAC was saying, “look at these beautiful pictures — this is what Israel really is about and not the political gamesmanship which might undermine our long-standing effort to ensure strong bi-partisan support for Israel.”

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Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech was short, moderate, and rather apologetic; or as far as he is capable of going — at this time — in trying to begin an effort of rapprochement with the president. He spoke to the substance of U.S. support for Israel, the crisis over Iran, and the need for Israel to address the concerns of the Jewish people throughout the world. (He even gave a shout-out to the work of his ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer; who was reportedly the architect of the Boehner invitation.) In light of reports that AIPAC had tried to convince Netanyahu not to accept Boehner’s invitation or at least to postpone it until after the Israeli election, the prime minister did not want to embarrass his host.

The problem with Netanyahu’s speech is that he was preaching to the choir. Even if there were members in the audience who personally had opposed his decision to address Congress, they were not making their voices heard. The AIPAC delegates literally get their marching orders and talking points from AIPAC’s legislative staff. When they lobby on Capitol Hill, as they would do on March 3, the understanding is that no one deviates from the message. This is why AIPAC is such an effective and powerful lobby. Part of the AIPAC message on March 2 was seen in the reception that they gave the prime minister, the lack of strong dissenting voices, and the united front they present before Congress.

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White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice gave a detailed review of not only the president’s approach to the Iran talks, but discussed the entire range of U.S.-Israel issues. She made clear that Obama would never jeopardize Israel’s safety and security for any deal with Iran or the Palestinians. 

Her speech was received differently by two rabbis in the audience. One said it was boring, the other said she was excellent. Neither Rice nor Power is a politician. Rice spoke straight and clear, but with no flair. The reception from the AIPAC delegates gave new meaning to the term “polite applause.” Having been cautioned before she spoke by her introducer to be appropriate, the audience did not react negatively to Rice, despite her recent conversation with Charlie Rose where she asserted that Netanyahu’s decision to give a speech to Congress without consulting the White House was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship. At the same time, they hardly gave her — and thus the president as well — very much credit for anything.

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Power gave an erudite, serious presentation covering the Obama administration’s consistent support for Israel at the UN, despite frequently being alone in doing so. She also spoke movingly about the Holocaust and the outspokenness of the Obama administration to the growing scourge of anti-Semitism in Europe, a subject on which she has professional and academic expertise. She was well-received, although more so as a teacher, not a policy-maker. 

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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) truly brought the house down with an old fashion, rip-snorting pro-Israel speech. Menendez — who on Feb. 27 introduced legislation that essentially would subject any Iran nuclear deal to congressional approval — did not equivocate on any issue and told the audience he would take on all comers from either party who sought to enact an Iran deal which would endanger Israel or roll back sanctions to entice Iran to stay the course. 

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