Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to the AIPAC Policy Conference [FULL TEXT]


Thank you, Mr. President.  (Applause.)  It’s great to be here.  It’s great to be here.  (Applause.)  Hey, Debbie.

Ladies and gentlemen, oh, what a difference 40 years makes.  (Laughter.)  I look out there and see an old friend, Annette Lantos.  Annette, how are you?  Her husband, Tom Lantos, a survivor, was my assistant, was my foreign policy advisor for years.  And Tom used to say all the time, Joe — he talked with that Hungarian accent — he’d say, Joe, we must do another fundraiser for AIPAC.  (Laughter.)  I did more fundraisers for AIPAC in the ‘70s and early ‘80s than — just about as many as anybody.  Thank God you weren’t putting on shows like this, we would have never made it.  (Laughter.)  We would have never made it.

My Lord, it’s so great to be with you all and great to see — Mr. President, thank you so much for that kind introduction.  And President-elect Bob Cohen, the entire AIPAC Board of Directors, I’m delighted to be with you today.  But I’m particularly delighted to be with an old friend — and he is an old friend; we use that phrase lightly in Washington, but it’s real, and I think he’d even tell you — Ehud Barak, it’s great to be with you, Mr. Minister.  Great to be with you.  (Applause.)

There is a standup guy.  There is a standup guy.  Standing up for his country, putting his life on the line for his country, and continuing to defend the values that we all share.  (Applause.)  I’m a fan of the man.  (Applause.)  Thanks for being here, Ehud.  It’s good to be with you again.

Ladies and gentlemen, a lot of you know me if you’re old enough.  (Laughter.)  Some of you don’t know me, and understand I can’t see now, but in the bleachers to either side, I’m told you have 2,000 young AIPAC members here.  (Applause.)  We talked about this a lot over the years.  We talked about it a lot:  This is the lifeblood.  This is the connective tissue.  This is the reason why no American will ever forget.  You’ve got to keep raising them.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder, a lot of us in this auditorium, defending the legitimate interest of Israel and our enduring commitment over the last 40 years.  And many of you in this hall — I won’t start to name them, but many of you in this hall, starting with Annette Lantos’s husband, who is not here, God rest his soul — many of you in this hall have been my teachers, my mentors and my educators, and that is not hyperbole.  You literally have been.

But my education started, as some of you know, at my father’s dinner table.  My father was what you would have called a righteous Christian.  We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation, and incidentally eat, as we were growing up.  It was a table — it was at that table I first heard the phrase that is overused sometimes today, but in a sense not used meaningfully enough — first I heard the phrase, “Never again.”

It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel.  (Applause.)  I remember my father, a Christian, being baffled at the debate taking place at the end of World War II talking about it.  I don’t remember it at that time, but about how there could be a debate about whether or not — within the community, of whether or not to establish the State of Israel.

My father would say, were he a Jew, he would never, never entrust the security of his people to any individual nation, no matter how good and how noble it was, like the United States.  (Applause.)  Everybody knows it’s real.  But I want you to know one thing, which some of you — I’ve met with a lot of you over the last 40 years, but the last four years as well.  President Obama shares my commitment.  We both know that Israel faces new threats, new pressures and uncertainty.  The Defense Minister and I have discussed it often.  In the area of national security, the threats to Israel’s existence continue, but they have changed as the world and the region have changed over the last decade.

The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel — and the United States — to reassess old and settled relationships.  Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program, and its continued support of terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas, not only endanger Israel, but endanger the world.  (Applause.)  Attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel are increasingly common, and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.

All these pressures are similar but different, and they put enormous pressure on the State of Israel.  We understand that.  And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence.  But if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence.  (Applause.)  And that’s why, from the moment the President took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not:  our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel.  That has not changed.  That will not change as long as I and he are President and Vice President of the United States.  (Applause.)  It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative.  (Applause.)

And to all of you, I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment.  And while we may not always agree on tactics — and I’ve been around a long time; I’ve been there for a lot of prime ministers — we’ve always disagreed on tactic.  We’ve always disagreed at some point or another on tactic.  But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen.  And we will.  (Applause.)

That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make sure Israel keeps its qualitative edge in the midst of the Great Recession.  I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama.  (Applause.)

President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel — the most in history.  He has directed close coordination, strategically and operationally, between our government and our Israeli partners, including our political, military and intelligence leadership.

I can say with certitude, in the last eight Presidents, I don’t know any time, Ehud, when there has been as many meetings, as much coordination, between our intelligence services and our military.  Matter of fact, they’re getting tired of traveling back across the ocean, I think.  (Laughter.)

Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises.  We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the President directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis — to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors.  (Applause.)

Not long ago, I would have had to describe to an audience what Iron Dome was, how it would work, why funding it mattered.  I don’t have to explain to anybody anymore.  Everybody gets it.  (Applause.)  Everybody saw — the world saw firsthand why it was and remains so critical.

For too long, when those sirens blared in the streets of the cities bordering Gaza, the only defense had been a bomb shelter.  But late last year, Iron Dome made a difference.  When Hamas rockets rained on Israel, Iron Dome shot them out of the sky, intercepting nearly 400 rockets in November alone.  It was our unique partnership — Israel and the United States — that pioneered this technology and funded it.

And it is in that same spirit that we’re working with Israel to jointly develop new systems, called Arrow and David’s Sling, interceptors that can defeat long-range threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — equally as urgent.  (Applause.)  And we are working to deploy a powerful new radar, networked with American early warning satellites, that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of an attack.  This is what we do.  This is what we do to ensure Israel can counter and defeat any threat from any corner.  (Applause.)

But that’s only the first piece of this equation.  Let me tell you — and I expect I share the view of many of you who have been involved with AIPAC for a long time.  Let me tell you what worries me the most today — what worries me more than at any time in the 40 years I’ve been engaged, and it is different than any time in my career.  And that is the wholesale, seemingly coordinated effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.  That is the single most dangerous, pernicious change that has taken place, in my humble opinion, since I’ve been engaged.  (Applause.)

And, ladies and gentlemen, it matters.  It matters.  To put it bluntly, there is only one nation — only one nation in the world that has unequivocally, without hesitation and consistently confronted the efforts to delegitimize Israel.  At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on the legitimacy — on behalf of legitimacy of the State of Israel.  President Obama has been a bulwark against those insidious efforts at every step of the way.

Wherever he goes in the world, he makes clear that although we want better relations with Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate.  There is no light.  It is not a matter of debate.  (Applause.)  It’s simple, and he means it:  It is not a matter of debated.  Don't raise it with us.  Do not raise it with us.  It is not negotiable.  (Applause.)

As recently as last year, the only country on the United Nations Human Rights Council to vote against — I think it’s 36 countries, don't hold me to the exact number — but the only country on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements was the United States of America.

We opposed the unilateral efforts of the Palestinian Authority to circumvent direct negotiations by pushing for statehood and multilateral organizations like UNESCO.  We stood strongly with Israel in its right to defend itself after the Goldstone Report was issued in 2009.  While the rest of the world, including some of our good friend, was prepared to embrace the report, we came out straightforwardly, expressed our concerns and with recommendations.

When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla in 2010, I was in Africa.  We spent a lot of time on the phone, Ehud and — the Defense Minister and I.  (Laughter.)  And Bibi and I spent a lot time on that phone with my interceding, going to the United Nations directly by telephone, speaking with the Secretary General, making sure that one thing was made clear, Israel had the right — had the right — to impose that blockade.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, that's why we refuse to attend events such as the 10th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference on Racism that shamefully equated Zionism with racism.  (Applause.)  That's why we rejected anti-Semitic rhetoric  from any corner and from leaders of any nation.  And that's why I’m proud to say my friend, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke out against the kind of language in Ankara just this Friday.  (Applause.)  By the way, he’s a good man.  You're going to be happy with Kerry.

And it was in the strongest terms that we vigorously opposed the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status in the General Assembly, and we will continue to oppose any effort to establish a state of Palestine through unilateral actions.

There is no shortcut to peace.  There is no shortcut to face-to-face negotiations.  There is no shortcut to guarantees made looking in the eyes of the other party.

Ladies and gentlemen, Israel's own leaders currently understand the imperative of peace.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres — they've all called for a two-state solution and an absolute  secure, democratic and Jewish State of Israel; to live side by side with an independent Palestinian state.  But it takes two to tango, and the rest of the Arab world has to get in the game.  (Applause.) 

We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve.  Even some of you in the audience said, why do we even talk about it anymore?  Well, it's going to require hard steps on both sides.  But it's in all of our interests — Israel's interest, the United States' interest, the interest of the Palestinian people.  We all have a profound interest in peace.  To use an expression of a former President, Bill Clinton, we've got to get caught trying.  We've got to get caught trying.  (Applause.)

So we remain deeply engaged.  As President Obama has said, while there are those who question whether this goal may ever be reached, we make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal, to pursue a better future.  And he'll make that clear when he goes to Israel later this month.

We're also mindful that pursuing a better future for Israel means helping Israel confront the myriads of threat it faces in the neighborhood.  It's a tough neighborhood, and it starts with Iran.  It is not only in Israel's interest — and everybody should understand — I know you understand this, but the world should — it's not only in Israel's interest that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, it's in the interest of the United States of America.  It's simple.  And, as a matter of fact, it's in the interest of the entire world. (Applause.)

Iraq's [sic] acquisition of a nuclear weapon not only would present an existential threat to Israel, it would present a threat to our allies and our partners — and to the United States.  And it would trigger an arms race — a nuclear arms race in the region, and make the world a whole lot less stable.

So we have a shared strategic commitment.  Let me make clear what that commitment is:  It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Period.  (Applause.)  End of discussion.  Prevent — not contain — prevent.  (Applause.)

The President has flatly stated that.  And as many of you in this room have heard me say — and he always kids me about this; we'll be in the security room — and I know that Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows this because she hears it — he always says, you know — he'll turn to other people and say, as Joe would say, he’s — as Joe would say, big nations can't bluff.  Well, big nations can't bluff.  And Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff.  And President Barack Obama is not bluffing.  He is not bluffing.  (Applause.)
 
We are not looking for war.  We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table.  But as I made clear at the Munich Security Conference just last month, our strong preference, the world’s preference is for a diplomatic solution.  So while that window is closing, we believe there is still time and space to achieve the outcome.  We are in constant dialogue, sharing information with the Israeli military, the Israeli intelligence service, the Israeli political establishment at every level, and we’re taking all the steps required to get there.

But I want to make clear to you something.  If, God forbid, the need to act occurs, it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected to avoid any confrontation.  And that matters.  Because God forbid, if we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us.  (Applause.)  We have a united international community.  We have a united international community behind these unprecedented sanctions.

We have left Iran more isolated than ever.  When we came to office, as you remember — not because of the last administration, just a reality — Iran was on the ascendency in the region.  It is no longer on the ascendency.  The purpose of this pressure is not to punish.  It is to convince Iran to make good on its international obligations.  Put simply, we are sharpening a choice that the Iranian leadership has to make.  They can meet their obligations and give the international community ironclad confidence in the peaceful nature of their program, or they can continue down the path they’re on to further isolate and mounting pressure of the world.

But even preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon still leaves them a dangerous neighbor, particularly to Israel.  They are using terrorist proxies to spread violence in the region and beyond the region, putting Israelis, Americans, citizens of every continent in danger.  For too long, Hezbollah has tried to pose as nothing more than a political and social welfare group, while plotting against innocents in Eastern Europe — from Eastern Europe to East Africa; from Southeast Asia to South America.  We know what Israel knows:  Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.  Period.  (Applause.)  And we — and me — we are urging every nation in the world that we deal with — and we deal with them all — to start treating Hezbollah as such, and naming them as a terrorist organization.  (Applause.)

This isn’t just about a threat to Israel and the United States.  It’s about a global terrorist organization that has targeted people on several continents.  We’ll say and we’ll do our part to stop them.  And we ask the world to do the same.  That’s why we’ve been talking to our friends in Europe to forcefully declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.  This past month I’ve made the case to leading European heads of state, as Barack and Israelis know, together we have to continue to confront Hezbollah wherever it shows — sews the seeds of hatred and stands against the nations that sponsor campaigns of terror.

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States and Israel have a shared interest in Syria as well.  Assad has shown his father’s disregard for human life and dignity, engaging in brutal murder of his own citizens.  Our position on that tragedy could not be clearer:  Assad must go.  But we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.  (Applause.)

That’s why our focus is on supporting a legitimate opposition not only committed to a peaceful Syria but to a peaceful region.  That’s why we’re carefully vetting those to whom we provide assistance.  That’s why, while putting relentless pressure on Assad and sanctioning the pro-regime, Iranian-backed militia, we’ve also designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.

And because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons.  And we will work together to prevent this conflict and these horrific weapons from threatening Israel’s security.  And while we try to ensure an end to the dictatorship in Syria, we have supported and will support a genuine transition to Egyptian democracy.

We have no illusions — we know how difficult this will be and how difficult it is.  There’s been — obviously been a dramatic change in Egypt.  A lot of it has given us hope and a lot of it has given us pause, and a lot of it has caused fears in other quarters.

It’s not about us, but it profoundly affects us.  We need to be invested in Egypt’s success and stability.  The stable success of Egypt will translate into a stable region.  We’re not looking at what’s happening in Egypt through rose-colored glasses.  Again, our eyes are wide open.  We have no illusions about the challenges that we face, but we also know this:  There’s no legitimate alternative at this point to engagement.

Only through engagement — it’s only through engagement with Egypt that we can focus Egypt’s leaders on the need to repair international obligations — respect their international obligations, including and especially its peace treaty with Israel.  It’s only through active engagement that we can help ensure that Hamas does not re-arm through the Sinai and put the people of Israel at risk.  It’s only through engagement that we can concentrate Egypt’s government on the imperative of confronting the extremists.  And it’s only through engagement that we can encourage Egypt’s leaders to make reforms that will spark economic growth and stabilize the democratic process.  And it’s all tough, and there’s no certainty.  There’s no certainty about anything in the Arab Spring.

I expect President Obama to cover each of these issues in much greater detail.  I’ve learned one thing, as I was telling the President, I learned it’s never a good idea, Ehud, to steal the President’s thunder.  It’s never a good idea to say what he’s going to say the next day.  So I’m not going to go into any further detail on this.  (Laughter.)  But in much greater detail he will discuss this when he goes to Israel later this month, just before Passover begins.

I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he gets to be the one to say “this year in Jerusalem,” but I’m the Vice President.  I’m not the President.  (Applause.)  So I — when I told him that, I’m not sure he thought I was serious or not.  But anyway.  (Laughter.)

As will come as no surprise to you, the President and I not only are partners, we’ve become friends, and he and I have spoken at length about this trip.  And I can assure you he’s particularly looking forward to having a chance to hear directly from the people of Israel and beyond their political leaders, and particularly the younger generation of Israelis.  (Applause.)

And I must note just as I’m getting a chance to speak to 2,000 young, American Jews involved and committed to the state of Israel and the relationship with the United States, he’s as anxious to do what I got a chance to do when I was there last, Ehud with you, as you flew me along the line.  I got to go to Tel Aviv University to speak several thousand young Israelis.  The vibrancy, the optimism, the absolute commitment is contagious, and he’s looking forward to seeing it and feeling it and tasting it.

The President looks forward to having conversations about their hopes and their aspirations, about their astonishing world-leading technological achievements, about the future they envision for themselves and for their country, about how different the world they face is from the one their parents faced, even if many of the threats are the same.

These are really important conversations for the President to have and to hear and for them to hear.  These are critically important.  I get kidded, again to quote Debbie, she kids sometimes, everybody quotes — Democrat and Republican — quotes Tip O’Neill saying, all politics is local.  With all due respect, Lonny, I think that's not right.  I think all politics is personal.  And I mean it:  All politics is personal.  And it’s building personal relationships and trust and exposure, talking to people that really matters, particularly in foreign policy.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let me end where I began, by reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel.  It’s not only a longstanding, moral commitment, it’s a strategic commitment.  An independent Israel, secure in its own borders, recognized by the world is in the practical, strategic interests of the United States of America.  I used to say when I — Lonny was president — I used to say if there weren't an Israel, we'd have to invent one.

Ladies and gentlemen, we also know that it's critical to remind every generation of Americans — as you're doing with your children here today, it's critical to remind our children, my children, your children.  That's why the first time I ever took the three of my children separately to Europe, the first place I took them was Dachau.  We flew to Munich and went to Dachau — the first thing we ever did as Annette will remember — because it's important that all our children and grandchildren understand that this is a never-ending requirement.  The preservation of an independent Jewish state is the ultimate guarantor, it's the only certain guarantor of freedom and security for the Jewish people in the world.  (Applause.)

That was most pointedly pointed out to me when I was a young senator making my first trip to Israel.  I had the great, great honor — and that is not hyperbole — of getting to meet for the first time — and subsequently, I met her beyond that — Golda Meir.  She was the prime minister.  (Applause.)

Now, I'm sure every kid up there said, you can't be that old, Senator.  (Laughter.)  I hope that's what you're saying.  (Laughter.)  But seriously, the first trip I ever made — and you all know those double doors.  You just go into the office and the blonde furniture and the desk on the left side, if memory serves me correctly.  And Golda Meir, as a prime minister and as a defense minister, she had those maps behind her.  You could pull down all those maps like you had in geography class in high school.

And she sat behind her desk.  And I sat in a chair in front of her desk, and a young man was sitting to my right who was her assistant.  His name was Yitzhak Rabin.  (Laughter.)  Seriously — an absolutely true story.  (Applause.)  And she sat there chain-smoking and reading letters to me, letters from the front from the Six-Day War.  She read letters and told me how this young man or woman had died and this is their family.  This went on for I don't know how long, and I guess she could tell I was visibly moved by this, and I was getting depressed about it — oh, my God.

And she suddenly looked at me and said — and I give you my word as a Biden that she looked at me and said — she said, Senator, would you like a photo opportunity?  (Laughter.)  And I looked at her.  I said, well yes, Madam Prime Minister.  I mean I was — and we walk out those doors.  We stood there — no statements, and we're standing next to one another looking at this array of media, television and photojournalists, take — snapping pictures.  And we're looking straight ahead.

Without looking at me, she speaks to me.  She said, Senator, don't look so sad.  She said, we have a secret weapon in our confrontation in this part of the world.  And I thought she was about to lean over and tell me about a new system or something.  Because you can see the pictures, I still have them — I turned to look at her.  We were supposed to be looking straight ahead.  And I said, Madam Prime Minister — and never turned her head, she kept looking — she said, our secret weapon, Senator, is we have no place else to go.  We have no place else to go.  (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, our job is to make sure there's always a place to go, that there's always an Israel, that there's always a secure Israel and there's an Israel that can care for itself.  (Applause.)  My father was right.  You are right.  It's the ultimate guarantor of never again.  God bless you all and may God protect our troops.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Obama and Netanyahu disagree, in private and in public


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree, at least in principle: Keep the talk on what to do about Iran behind closed doors. But once they’re behind those doors, they can’t agree — and they can’t seem to resist bringing their disagreements into the open.

Within hours of a long and private Oval Office meeting on March 5 that aides to both leaders said was productive, Netanyahu suggested that Obama’s sanctions-focused approach to Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t producing results. The next day Obama was warning that the United States would suffer repercussions if Israel struck Iran prematurely.

There also seem to have been some concessions from both sides.

Netanyahu told Obama and congressional leaders that he had not yet decided to strike Iran. And Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, issued perhaps the most explicit warning yet of possible U.S. military action against Iran in his address on March 6 to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.

“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” he said on the conference’s last day in a round of morning addresses aimed at motivating the 13,000 activists in attendance before they visited Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers. “But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act.”  

That formulation is more acute than the “no-options-off-the-table” language that has been the boilerplate for the Obama and Bush administrations.

Much of Panetta’s speech appeared to be a bid to persuade Netanyahu to coordinate more closely with the United States.

“Cooperation is going to be essential to confronting the challenges of the 21st century,” Panetta said. “The United States must always have the unshakeable trust of our ally Israel. We are stronger when we act as one.” 

Top Obama administration officials have tried to persuade Netanyahu that diplomatic options have not yet been exhausted in the bid to have Iran stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. 

Netanyahu did not seem as eager to cooperate in his hard-hitting speech on Monday night, which repeatedly brought the AIPAC crowd to its feet for ovations. He stressed Israel’s right to act and expressed impatience with the pace of efforts to bring pressure to bear on Iran.

“I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran, and these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward,” Netanyahu said. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work, none of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

Responding to commentators who argue that military action against Iran would be ineffective or provoke a violent response, Netanyahu said, “I’ve heard these arguments before.” He then dramatically held up correspondence from 1944 between the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. War Department in which the latter rejected the WJC’s plea to bomb Auschwitz and the railways leading to the death camp.

“2012 is not 1944, the American government today is different. You heard that in President Obama’s speech yesterday,” he said. “But here is my point: The Jewish people is also different today. We have a state of our own, and the purpose of a Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and secure our future. Never again.” 

He repeated the line that he had told Obama at the outset of their meeting earlier Monday:  ”When it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.”

Such talk appeared to frustrate Obama. The next day, in response to a question at a news conference, Obama pointedly said that military action against Iran could have consequences for the United States.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security,” he said. “And as I said over the last several days, I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”

But then he added, “The argument that we’ve made to the Israelis is that we have made an unprecedented commitment to their security. There is an unbreakable bond between our two countries, but one of the functions of friends is to make sure that we provide honest and unvarnished advice in terms of what is the best approach to achieve a common goal, particularly one in which we have a stake. This is not just an issue of Israeli interests, this is an issue of U.S. interests. It’s also not just an issue of consequences for Israel, if action is taken prematurely. There are consequences to the United States as well.”

If that wasn’t enough to get the message across, Obama painted a searing picture of such consequences.

“You know, when I visit Walter Reed,” the military hospital in Washington,  ”when I sign letters to families that have — whose loved ones have not come home — I am reminded that there is a cost,” he said.

Obama insisted there was still time for diplomacy to work, and in a subtle gibe at Netanyahu said that Israel’s intelligence establishment agreed.

“It is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said. “That’s not just my view — that’s the view of our top intelligence officials, it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”

Both leaders appeared to be caught between wanting to make their case and keep some matters behind closed doors. Netanyahu started his Monday night speech to AIPAC’s policy conference by pledging, “I’m not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or not do — I never talk about that.”

A day earlier in his AIPAC address, Obama criticized what he called “loose talk of war.”

“Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program,” he said. “For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”

The three Republican presidential candidates who addressed AIPAC on Tuesday used the opportunity to take aim at Obama’s Iran policy, accusing the president of being soft and hesitant on the issue.

“I will bring the current policy of procrastination to an end,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said via satellite.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives also speaking via satellite, said that as president he would not expect a warning from Israel should it decide to strike Iran.

Rick Santorum, the ex-U.S. senator who was at the conference in person, despite it being Super Tuesday, said that differences between the U.S. and Israel over what should trigger a strike were emboldening Iran.

“There is a clear and unfortunate and tragic disconnect between how the leaders of Israel and of the United States view the exigency of this situation,” Santorum said. He accused Obama of “turning his back” on Israel.

The evening before, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, proposed from the podium that the U.S. should openly threaten Iran with the prospect of “overwhelming force” if its nuclear program progresses past certain thresholds.

“If Iran at any time begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” he said to applause, although his remarks do not reflect any AIPAC policy.

In the president’s news conference, which was supposed to be about the housing crisis, Obama pushed back against hawkish talk from his Republican critics.

“When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said. “I’m reminded of the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game, and there’s nothing casual about it.”

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad AIPAC?


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Who’s afraid of the big bad AIPAC?

Andrew Silow-Carroll should have been.

In 1991, Carroll was the acting editor of The Washington Jewish Week, a highly decorated and well-respected independent newspaper. In 1992, he wasn’t. The reason? He went to a picnic.

Generally, the worst that’ll happen at a picnic is ants or the theft of a lunch basket by your smarter-than-average bear. This particular outing found Carroll representing his paper before a consortium of left-of-center Israeli groups, a reasonably standard weekend activity for a Jewish journalist. But also present was an intern from AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, who was quietly huddled in the crowd, scribbling out a record of the day’s events, notably Carroll’s speech. Awhile back, AIPAC had asked Carroll to replace the reporter on the AIPAC beat. Carroll had refused.

When the intern’s report was handed in, the story goes, AIPAC’s all-purpose enforcer quickly pulled a few quotes from Carroll’s talk, turned it into a memo, and circulated it among The Washington Jewish Week’s board members. Shortly thereafter, Carroll was demoted and stripped of responsibilities. He subsequently resigned.

And so I ask again: Who’s afraid of the big bad AIPAC?

The answer is nearly everybody. Many of my colleagues were horrified to learn I was writing an article on the lobby, repeatedly warning me that it’d mean curtains for my career — I half expected to wake up one morning to find a dismembered menorah in my bed.

While reporting this piece, I spoke to numerous former AIPAC employees, many professionals knowledgeable about their operations and a number of journalists who’d written on them in the past. Almost no one was willing to go on the record. But they were willing, even eager, to talk, like kids with long-bottled secrets who’d finally found someone to tell. As often happens, however, the actual information, so long concealed, seemed more tantalizing than it really was. For that matter, AIPAC, while looming large in their minds, wasn’t nearly so intimidating in the retelling.

If you don’t follow Washington lobbying — or official efforts to boost Israel — you might draw a blank on hearing the word AIPAC. First of all, it isn’t a PAC in the campaign-finance sense; the name predates the rise of Gingrich-style political action committees in the popular consciousness. That’s led to some confusion, as AIPAC doesn’t actually donate to candidates. Instead, it compiles copious research on voting records and other activities. This research is then relied on by many donors — primarily Jewish ones — when deciding whose coffers to fill. Impressing AIPAC, then, is one of Washington’s quickest routes to significant fundraising, especially if AIPAC doesn’t hold your opponent in high esteem.

In addition, the organization has a powerful lobbying operation, so powerful, in fact, that Fortune magazine ranked it in the top five, and both Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton have called AIPAC the best in town. But much of this influence comes from a carefully protected image that relies on two main components: The first is the grand conference, where speakers have included Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Bill Frist, Condoleeza Rice, Howard Dean, Dennis Hastert, John Kerry, Gingrich, John McCain and numerous others. The upcoming conference in Los Angeles features an address from Bill Clinton.

Psychologists call this social proof. It’s why companies pay celebrities to wear their products and evangelists pepper their literature with testimonials: When others are doing something, particularly high-status others, bystanders tend to attach value to the action or product in question. So if Tiger Woods is wearing Nikes, that says something about Nikes. If Madonna is sporting a red string, it makes a point about the Kabbalah Centre. And if every major politician of the past few decades believes it de rigeur to drop in on AIPAC, so will every politician of the next few decades. One wonders if they even know why they’re doing it anymore.

The second is a reputation for defeating any and every politician who crosses them. But as one senior house aide argued to me, “The idea that members who cross AIPAC are defeated is very rarely true, but it’s nevertheless an effective myth.” What AIPAC actually does, he said, “is shoot the dead and the wounded,” attacking already-weakened politicians who AIPAC knows can be defeated — and thus used to bolster its image. When it goes after strong incumbents, as it did in 1988 with Rhode Island’s John Chafee, AIPAC can and does fail. Nor does AIPAC support spell certain success. Indeed, one analysis found that, in 1992, five of the top 10 recipients of pro-Israel donations lost their elections.

But that may be beside the point. Politicians not only want to avoid defeat, they want to avoid trouble. And AIPAC specializes in presenting the implied threat of serious bother. Comfy incumbents who know they can’t be toppled nevertheless don’t want to be hounded by Jewish constituents, denounced by local rabbis, abandoned by Jewish contributors and challenged by a suddenly richer, pro-Israel candidate. So they go along to get along.

That, however, is how the game works, how lobbies operate — and not just AIPAC. It’s not that AIPAC invented the game or perfected something new, but it helps that AIPAC’s actions have been so shrouded in secrecy and innuendo that its reputation has become far darker than its reality. And that’s the fault of the press. With so many of my colleagues scared to write on AIPAC and so many half-known stories wafting round the office, it’s inevitable that few would look deep enough to demythologize AIPAC. So it’s perhaps a bit ironic that the journalist most willing to soften the lobby’s image was the one at the center of a storied act of press intimidation.

I reached Carroll at his office in New Jersey. Now editor-in-chief at The New Jersey Jewish News, Carroll was fully willing to retell his tale, but insistent that it’s time to update the story. AIPAC, he said, is not the organization it once was. Pre-Rabin, the organization enthusiastically stifled debate, but once the left rose to power in Israel, AIPAC’s more conservative members, not to mention the larger Orthodox community, realized they needed room for dissent. Indeed, Rabin himself, in a meeting with AIPAC, is reported to have demanded that AIPAC stop the intimidation, real or implied, and allow the Jewish community to speak freely again. After that, Carroll says, AIPAC has been much less involved in controlling the press.

Fears of retribution then are somewhat vestigial. In any case, Steven J. Rosen, the pit bull whom Carroll blamed for his demotion (and AIPAC’s reputation), is now standing trial in the wake of an espionage investigation and being denounced by his former employer. Is that ingratitude or maturity on the part of AIPAC — or merely savvy?

Carroll’s ordeal was almost 15 years ago. So are most of the tales of AIPAC intimidation. Since that time, America has changed, Israel has changed and so has AIPAC. What hasn’t changed is AIPAC’s reputation.

Maybe it’s time that it did.

Ezra Klein is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.

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All About AIPAC

AIPAC — Let the Sun Shine In


By most measures, last week’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was a success.

The sessions were substantive and well-led; the speakers top-rank. The large number of under-40 delegates suggested the organization’s future is strong.

Despite the continuing federal investigation into the activities of two recently fired AIPAC officials, a record number of top politicians showed up to pay homage and to connect with the big givers in the corridors of the Washington Convention Center. Rumors about AIPAC’s diminished clout appear premature.

But on one issue, AIPAC keeps repeating past mistakes. The organization remains more closed to outsiders than any other in Jewish life, feeding suspicions that it is up to no good. And that perception could come home to roost if, as Israeli newspapers have reported, the two ex-employees are soon charged under the Espionage Act.

There’s a history here.

Years ago, one of the recently fired employees etched AIPAC’s reputation in stone when he said “a lobby is like a night flower; it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

A schizophrenic AIPAC seems to cherish that image even as it seeks public acknowledgement of its many accomplishments.

AIPAC’s top professionals are less available to the press than those of any other Jewish group; its members are warned that the press is an adversary to be avoided.

The policy is carried to ridiculous extremes. Asked for impressions of last week’s conference, one delegate said “we have a policy, you have to talk to our press person.”

This person was not being asked if AIPAC trafficked in classified documents; the question was more about whether she and her colleagues were having a good time and learning a lot. But even that was apparently too much openness for AIPAC.

AIPAC’s closed-door policy creates a mood of hostility and suspicion that provides endless ammunition for critics and inevitably finds its way into news stories. If you detect a slight note of glee in some of the reporting on AIPAC’s recent woes, it’s not unrelated to the frustration so many reporters experience in dealing with AIPAC.

It also means AIPAC often doesn’t get credit for its accomplishments — something that clearly irks the group’s leaders, but apparently not enough to open the doors a crack.

Other Jewish organizations have become skilled at working closely with reporters — providing access to their top staffers, issue specialists and lay leaders, giving regular “background” briefings on issues and encouraging a give-and-take relationship with journalists.

Sometimes that means exposing their warts, but on balance these organizations enjoy far better press coverage — not because happy reporters want to reward their policies, but simply because those policies let reporters do their jobs.

This isn’t a slam on AIPAC’s press people, who are just following policies laid down by those at the top of the organizational food chain, where anti-media hostility is most intense.

But in 2005, AIPAC’s carefully cultivated night-flower image could blossom into real damage to the group’s political standing if the federal investigation and any resulting court cases take a few wrong turns.

AIPAC leaders claim, and there’s no reason to doubt them, that the group is not a target of the federal investigators who are looking into leaked classified documents.

But if its former officials are charged under the Espionage Act, the cloud over AIPAC is likely to darken as troubling questions of management and accountability are raised. The group will face a new level of scrutiny as current and former officials testify under oath.

And then, its distrustful relations with the press and its secretive image may compound any damage — not legally, but in terms of image.

AIPAC leaders understand the power of image, which is why they work so hard to get a massive turnout of top-rank politicians at the annual policy conference. Nothing says “power” as emphatically as a hall packed with members of Congress.

AIPAC may not have done anything illegal, but the image of a lobby group with employees involved in something that will inevitably be reported as spying can’t help but damage its reputation and its standing with the politicians who are its bread and butter. The group’s troubled relations with the press and its longstanding secretiveness will make it harder to limit the damage.

That would be a disaster for the Jewish community and for Israel. For all its faults — and every organization has them — AIPAC remains the indispensable engine behind the pro-Israel movement in this country. Its lobbying is the most important factor in the almost wall-to-wall support for Israel in Congress; no other group can pick up the slack if AIPAC’s standing is harmed.

The current crisis suggests the need for some hard-headed self-examination by AIPAC leaders. And one item on their agenda should be the group’s relations with the outside world.

 

Maybe it’s time to pluck the night flower and let the sun shine in.

AIPAC Will Focus on Policy at Gathering


Inside the massive Washington Convention Center, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be talking about the Gaza Strip withdrawal and the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, in the hallways and the social gatherings of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference next week, talk is likely to focus on the investigation into two former AIPAC staffers and the effect it could have on AIPAC’s ability to lobby for Israel.

AIPAC will be tasked with keeping its members focused on the important issues facing Israel and maintaining support in Congress if the Gaza pullout, planned for this summer, goes awry. The effort to keep attention focused on Iran’s presumed drive for nuclear weapons is also high on its agenda.

The organization is still perceived as a “behemoth,” congressional officials say, and will be taken seriously when it meets May 22-24 — but a cloud will linger over the proceedings.

“You deal with them as you would normally deal with them,” one congressional staffer said. He compared it to a friend who has a health problem: You don’t talk about the problem, and you hope that it resolves itself quickly.

There are two traditional success markers to an AIPAC policy conference. One is a roll call of members of Congress, diplomats and administration officials attending the Monday night dinner — last year there were nearly 200, including more than 40 senators — and the other is a lobbying day Tuesday, when thousands of AIPAC members descend on Capitol Hill.

How many lawmakers turn up Monday night and how the lobbyists fare Tuesday will be closely watched by the organization, its supporters and its critics. Some insiders, who asked not to be identified, say there may be apprehension about working with AIPAC, because of the FBI probe.

“I think most members of Congress and staffers who are invited to meet with AIPAC constituents and go to the dinner will still go,” a congressional aide said. “But I’m convinced, in the back of everybody’s mind, there is a kernel of concern and doubt that maybe we shouldn’t be playing ball with AIPAC the way we always have.”

AIPAC’s problems stem from an FBI investigation into Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon analyst arrested earlier this month and accused of verbally passing classified information to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s research director, and Keith Weissman, a top Iran analyst at AIPAC.

AIPAC fired both men last month, and Rosen associates tell JTA he expects to be indicted. AIPAC officials claim that they have been assured the probe is not targeting the organization or any other staffers.

“Nobody knows what the implications of this legal situation are,” a congressional staffer said. “It could be a blip, and AIPAC has had blips before.”

AIPAC has gone to great lengths to stress its bona fides, publicizing Rice, Sharon and other scheduled speakers, including leaders of both congressional chambers from both parties. Sharon’s presence is considered particularly significant. Israeli prime ministers rarely travel to the United States if they don’t have an audience with the president.

Sharon is expected to meet with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York before heading to Washington, but has planned no political meetings, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said. Sharon also is expected to be welcomed in New York at a rally Sunday, a measure of American Jewish support for the disengagement plan.

“Prime Minister Sharon is coming to stand with the American pro-Israel community at a crucial moment in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said.

AIPAC also is boasting about attendance at the conference, which is expected to top 5,000 people, including nearly 1,000 students.

Such self-promotion is unusual for the organization, which generally feels it can be most effective if it keeps its achievements behind the scenes. In the past, major speakers have not been confirmed until the week before the conference, and officials play down the expected attendance, instead of talking it up.

AIPAC officials insist that this year’s conference is business as usual, though they referred questions to Patrick Dorton, a Washington publicist whose experience in scandal management includes shepherding accounting giant Arthur Andersen.

“We’re promoting the policy conference the same way we’ve done it in years past,” Dorton said. “AIPAC continues to be proud of the work it does on behalf of its membership.”

A source close to AIPAC said Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director, will touch on the investigation briefly in a speech to delegates Sunday, but mostly will focus on AIPAC’s policy agenda.

The organization has real work to do. Topping its agenda will be preparing Congress for the Israeli withdrawal. The lobby is preparing a letter for lawmakers to send to President Bush, underscoring how the United States should support the peace process. Bush already has expressed interest in assisting Israel in the development of the Negev Desert and the Galilee, the regions likeliest to absorb some 9,000 settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. Israel has suggested that resettlement costs could run as high as $3.5 billion.

AIPAC will be charged with laying the groundwork for pushing through any additional aid packages. In addition to direct aid, that could mean new U.S. loan guarantees for Israel.

It will be important for AIPAC to show that it backs the disengagement plan, especially since it has a hawkish reputation in Washington. A draft of the group’s action agenda, which will be debated in executive committee at the conference, calls for supporting the “U.S. government’s backing” of the plan, rather than the plan itself. Officials said that was in keeping with the group’s philosophy of lobbying the U.S. government, not trying to influence Israeli policy.

In a twist, the disengagement plan could soon pit AIPAC against a traditional ally — Christian evangelicals, including several prominent lawmakers, who believe the disengagement violates biblical precepts and offers Palestinian terrorists a triumph. Dovish groups welcomed the tilt.

“It’s very significant that AIPAC intends to adopt formal policy language that embraces disengagement, and specifically the Bush administration’s endorsement of disengagement,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Disengagement opponents said they won’t try to scuttle AIPAC’s support for the plan, which they believe is inevitable. Instead, they’ll try to ensure that any resolutions reflect the trauma it will impose on settlers.

Morton Klein, Zionist Organization of America president, said language should refer to the evacuation of thousands of “women and children from Gaza” and the northern West Bank “by force if necessary, and abandoning Jewish homes, schools and synagogues where Jews have been living for 35 years.”

Klein plans to continue protesting the plan but has pledged not to lobby against U.S. funding related to it.

As usual, the conference will see some protests. A coalition of right-wing Jewish groups are coordinating buses from New York to Washington, and plan to sleep outside the Convention Center in tents, simulating Gaza settlers who will be expelled from their homes under the withdrawal plan. The Council for National Interest, a pro-Arab group, also will protest, claiming undue Israeli influence in American foreign policy.

AIPAC is not shutting out disengagement dissenters. Natan Sharansky, who resigned recently from Israel’s Cabinet because he believes the time is not ripe for the withdrawal, will speak Sunday night. The former Soviet dissident was expected to speak of democratic ideals, not disengagement.

Another crucial plank at the conference is backing for the Iran Freedom Support bill, a measure to strengthen sanctions against Iran by penalizing foreign countries that invest in Iran’s energy sector and to provide funding to democratic groups in the Islamic republic.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), codifies much of what already is in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, but includes a provision that would notify investors if a fund they own has shares in a company that is subject to sanctions. The goal is to create an investor backlash against companies that deal with Iran.

AIPAC also will focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Delegates will learn about the nuclear fuel cycle and how Iran appears to be seeking a nuclear bomb.

The lobby will continue to stress the annual passage of foreign aid. This year’s aid package includes $2.28 billion in military aid for Israel and $240 million in economic assistance, as well as $150 million for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.