AIPAC Conference Pushes Hard Line on Iran

by , May 06, 2009

The annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful and hawkish pro-Israel lobby, wrapped up on Tuesday with a speech from Vice President Joe Biden, capping three days that were primarily devoted to the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East peace process took a back seat to the Iran issue at the conference, which ended with attendees heading to Capitol Hill to lobby for a bill that would impose sanctions targeting the Iranian energy sector.

While representatives of the Barack Obama administration, the Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel, and AIPAC itself all sought to emphasize points of consensus and cooperation at the conference, it remains to be seen whether the various parties will be on the same page going forward.

The Obama administration has given high priority to diplomacy with Iran and a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, but the Netanyahu government has shown distinctly less enthusiasm for these goals, and the mood at the AIPAC conference suggested that most attendees shared Netanyahu’s skepticism.

The conference drew an estimated 6,500 attendees, as well as more than half of the members of the U.S. Congress and numerous U.S. and Israeli political luminaries. It was a stark reminder that although AIPAC may have come under increasing fire in recent years, the group remains a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

Speakers included Biden, Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and several top leaders from the U.S. Congress. Netanyahu addressed the conference via satellite, and other notables such as Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were also in attendance.

During the day, attendees had their choice of a number of panels and information sessions. The Iranian issue loomed large, with six separate panels devoted to it; by contrast, only two panels focused on Palestine.

There were also a number of private panels and master classes that were off the record and closed to the press, with titles like "The Palestinians Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity: The History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."

The conference’s rhetorical focus on the Iranian menace was in line with AIPAC’s current top legislative priority, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA).

On Tuesday, conference attendees went to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives in support of the bill, which would require President Obama to impose sanctions on foreign firms exporting refined petroleum products to Iran.

AIPAC argues that the bill will strengthen Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran by providing him additional leverage, but other pro-Israel groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now have opposed the bill on the grounds that it would send mixed messages and undercut the administration’s diplomacy.

Most speakers at the conference expressed cautious support for Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran, but warned that if it did not bear fruit quickly harsher measures would have to be taken. Sen. Jon Kyl, one of the lead sponsors of the sanctions bill, called for a "short and hard end date" for diplomacy. He and others suggested the summer as a deadline.

The Obama administration has not taken a public position on the legislation. In his speech at AIPAC on Tuesday, Biden alluded to the need to examine "other options" should diplomacy fail, but did not mention the word "sanctions," which had been a constant refrain during the rest of the conference.

In the conference’s final two speeches, Biden and Kerry both reaffirmed the U.S.’ commitment to a two-state solution, and called on the Israeli government to halt or reverse settlement construction.

"You’re not going to like me saying this, but [do] not build those settlements. Dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement," Biden said.

Biden’s prediction about the audience’s reaction appeared to be correct. While the crowd had welcomed him warmly and gave him several standing ovations, his statements about Israeli obligations garnered only scattered applause.

Similarly, Kerry’s calls to freeze settlements, strengthen the Palestinian Authority, and provide a "light at the end of the tunnel" for children in Gaza received a tepid reaction from the audience.

The lukewarm response to Biden’s and Kerry’s statements about the peace process was a reminder that a gulf may remain between AIPAC and the Obama administration.

AIPAC has traditionally been aligned with Netanyahu and his Likud Party and in the 1990s joined him in working to bring down the Oslo peace process behind the scenes, according to a March article by former AIPAC chief lobbyist Douglas Bloomfield.

Although AIPAC has broken with Netanyahu in supporting a two-state solution, the group has, like Netanyahu, made dealing with Iran’s nuclear program a higher priority than the peace progress. The Obama administration, by contrast, has insisted that the two issues must go hand-in-hand.

For his part, Netanyahu told the conference that he supported a "triple track toward peace," consisting of political, security, and economic measures, and stated that he was ready to resume peace negotiations without precondition. But he stopped short of endorsing a Palestinian state.

Others at the conference struck a more militant tone. Gingrich, the former Republican leader who remains an influential figure within the party, headlined the first day of the conference with a fiery speech calling for regime change in Tehran whose good-and-evil rhetoric recalled George W. Bush.

"We need to break the lawyer’s sophistry that all nations are equal," Gingrich said. "There are some regimes you will never be able to cut a deal with because they are in fact evil."

"Talking in good faith and seeking reconciliation with Adolf Hitler would have been a dead end, because he was the personification of evil. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, if he gets the weapons, will be every bit as evil as Hitler."

Gingrich advocated preemptive military action to take out Iranian and North Korean missiles at their sites, and he supported the petroleum sanctions bill not in order to strengthen U.S. diplomacy but in order to "break" the Iranian economy and "oust the ayatollahs."

His speech drew sustained applause from the audience, but was quickly denounced by J Street and other critics.

The AIPAC conference came only days after prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former AIPAC staffers who were fired and accused of violating the Espionage Act by receiving classified information and passing it to reporters and to the Israeli government.

The story took another turn in late April, when it was reported that Rep. Jane Harman, a powerful Democrat and AIPAC stalwart, had been caught on a government wiretap discussing an alleged "quid pro quo" deal, in which she would intercede with the Justice Department on Rosen and Weissman’s behalf in exchange for help in landing a top congressional intelligence post.

On Sunday, Harman made a defiant appearance at the AIPAC conference, in which she characterized herself as a "warrior on behalf of our Constitution and against the abuse of power."

(Inter Press Service)

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