October 20, 2018

AIPAC policy conference: Once more, with feeling

What does a pro-Israel lobbying group do at its annual policy conference when it knows with a high degree of certainty that its chief policy priority isn’t likely to go anywhere on Capitol Hill?

The same things it does every other year.

There was no perceptible lack of enthusiasm among the more than 14,000 attendees at the AIPAC annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., which began March 2 and wrapped up on March 4. Attendees listened intently to the speakers, who included politicians, academics, journalists and others; everyone cheered as American disaster relief workers praised Israeli expertise in that field, and they gave standing ovations to a pair of tween girls — a Palestinian and an Israeli — who had been brought together by a soccer program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. They clapped and sang along with an African-American pastor from Chicago who, together with his church’s gospel choir, led those in the giant hall to rise to their feet with a rousing, prayerful song. And they shmoozed at dozens of gatherings, organized by all the synagogues and campus Hillel houses and Jewish summer camps and more that had brought constituents to D.C.

But to veterans of AIPAC conferences and to the group’s leaders, this year felt markedly different because, for the first time in a decade or more, AIPAC finds itself facing stiff resistance to its legislative agenda from some members of Congress, as well as, and perhaps even more pointedly, from the White House.

“We hear it from politicians — congressmen, senators — that the administration is basically [telling] everybody, ‘Stay out of our way, we’re determined to resolve this issue with Iran,’ ” Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American AIPAC member from Los Angeles, told the Journal on March 3 at the conference.

“You feel the tension in the air. You feel the frustration from the lawmakers.”

In pursuit of its oft-restated goal — ensuring that Iran has “no pathway” to a nuclear weapon — AIPAC deployed its activists on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby every senator and congressional representative on behalf of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. That bill would prepare a set of sanctions against Iran to go into effect should the current U.S.-led talks with the Islamic regime fail to reach an agreement about Iran’s nuclear program. But as AIPAC’s leaders were well aware even before the conference began, the bill itself doesn’t have much of a pathway forward right now.

“On the Hill, you may meet some headwinds,” AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr said at the conference’s opening plenary on Sunday. “You may hear, ‘It’s time to stand down; now’s not the time for this conversation.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech to AIPAC on Tuesday morning, wasn’t budging from his demands. Israel wants diplomacy to succeed, Netanyahu said, but he continues to push for an agreement requiring Iran “to fully dismantle its nuclear military capability.”

“You know how you get that agreement with Iran?” Netanyahu said. “Not by relieving pressure, but by adding pressure.”

AIPAC is used to seeing bills it supports pass by wide margins; 99 to 0 in the Senate has not been atypical for past AIPAC-endorsed bills. (Another bill on AIPAC’s agenda this year, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, could garner that kind of support.) But when it comes to new sanctions against Iran, the group hasn’t been able to muster the 60 votes in the Senate to guarantee passage, to say nothing of the 67 votes needed to override a veto by the president.

“The goal is to take a bipartisan resolution to Congress,” Milstein said, “and right now, they don’t have the votes.”

Just how unusual this is for AIPAC was clear on Monday evening. Secretary of State John Kerry’s lengthy speech was full of AIPAC-friendly content — a story about piloting an Israeli fighter jet over the Negev on one trip to Israel, recollections of shouting “Am Yisrael chai!” at Masada on another — and he pledged his and President Barack Obama’s support for Israel in the face of any boycotts.

And when Kerry laid out his and the president’s reasons for not authorizing new sanctions against Iran, he did so forcefully and in language that couldn’t help but draw applause from AIPAC.

“We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Period.”

But when Kerry argued that “it is strong diplomacy that has actually made this moment possible, and we need to give it the space to work,” a significant number of people in the room avowed that they simply do not trust the secretary of state on this issue.

Indeed, at least a few seemed skeptical when, one day earlier, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told the gathered AIPAC activists that the “temporary targeted and reversible sanctions relief” granted to Iran by the United States and its allies “will not enable Iran’s economy to recover from the deep economic damage inflicted by the sanctions program.”

“People have been hearing it since October, November, and they know a lot of it is not true,” Milstein said of the administration’s line of argument. “Billions of dollars are now going back to Iran. The sanctions have been broken.”

Despite Kerry’s pledge that, should negotiations fail, it would take “about two hours” to get new sanctions legislation through Congress and that he and Obama will “fully support those sanctions under those circumstances,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), speaking at AIPAC on Tuesday, voiced skepticism.

“We may not have time to pass new sanctions,” Menendez, one of the architects of the current sanctions regime, said. “New sanctions are not a spigot that can be turned on and off.”

Although Obama did not come to personally address AIPAC’s convention this year, he argued against that assertion in an extended interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, which was published by Bloomberg View on Sunday, the first day of the conference, and which overnight became the talk of the conference.

Obama told Goldberg it is necessary for the United States to test Iran by giving negotiations a chance to work, both to see whether the regime can assure the United States that its nuclear program is peaceful, and to ensure that, if the Iranians do not agree to an acceptable deal, the United States can later turn to its allies and reimpose the sanctions that it has dialed down.

Kerry delivered the same message in the hall at AIPAC, saying that he and his boss both understand the position of Israel and its supporters.

“As President Obama said in Jerusalem, no one can question why Israel looks at the Iranian program and sees an existential threat,” Kerry said. “We understand it. We understand it in our gut.”

In a very real sense, the difference between AIPAC’s preferred course of action and the Obama administration’s is a nuanced argument over which set of tactics will keep Iran from producing a nuclear weapon without the United States and its allies finding out and acting first. AIPAC believes the best way to push Iran to agree to a deal is by continuing sanctions against the regime; the Obama administration, for its part, believes that such a course of action could appear to undercut the current Iranian leadership and gives them justification to leave the negotiations by arguing that the United States has not been negotiating in good faith.

But the way this disagreement over tactics has been playing out in public has been anything but nuanced or polite.

“Iran’s rulers must know, the only alternative to compromising on our terms is even more crippling sanctions — or worse,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on Monday in a speech filled with attacks on Obama and his leadership, which included an endorsement of AIPAC’s preferred approach, to preemptively pass harsher sanctions that would take effect if negotiations fail.

But despite McCain’s outspoken support – and from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who also endorsed that course of action in his speech to AIPAC on Monday — the bill in the Senate remains stalled, at least for now.

Which is why, this year, the other aspects of the AIPAC policy conference must have seemed a welcome diversion from the challenges on the legislative front.

“I arrange everything in life by bullet points,” Jesse Sharf, an attorney from Los Angeles said at one point in the plenary hall on Monday, pulling up a list on his BlackBerry of what keeps him coming back to AIPAC’s policy conference year after year. In addition to the stated goal of lobbying Congress on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Sharf talked up the educational opportunities available to AIPAC attendees, the “energy” that comes along with being part of such a large community and the ancillary “social networking” benefits of attending.

“You could look at it as being the world’s largest singles scene for pro-Israel advocates,” Sharf said.

For Russ and Linleigh Richker, newly empty nesters from Los Angeles who were attending their first AIPAC policy conference this year, getting to AIPAC wasn’t an option until now.

“This is the first time in our life that we have the time and the energy and the resources to do something,” Linleigh Richker said. “When those things come together, it’s time to make a difference.”

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman was at his third AIPAC conference, this time leading a delegation of about 100 people from Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. He said he certainly understands that AIPAC is dealing with some “recent setbacks in the political agenda.” And yet, for him, a highlight of the conference was the dinner for AIPAC activists from L.A.-area synagogues that took place Sunday night.

There, delegations from L.A’s Conservative congregations of VBS and Sinai Temple, as well as the Reform congregants from Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah came together for a conversation with Congressman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), followed by dinner.

“There was something special about being here together, to be empowered to voice our support — unified and in harmony — that inspires me to continue to support AIPAC,” Hoffman said.

This year’s AIPAC gathering was also distinguished by the relatively robust support pledged by speakers for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I’m prepared to make historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said told the AIPAC crowd, urging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and even exhorting the AIPAC activists to applaud the efforts of Secretary of State Kerry to advance an agreement.

And yet, even as Netanyahu and others declared their commitment to such a peace agreement, as well as their steadfast opposition to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to isolate Israel, the focus was still on stopping Iran from even approaching the threshold of nuclear capability.

“Seventy years ago, our people were left for dead,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

“We came back to life. We will never be brought to the brink of extinction again. As prime minister of Israel, I will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish State of Israel.”