ZOA opposes AIPAC giving platform to anti-Israel group “Breaking the Silence”

It is appalling that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) organized and conducted a panel discussion event for visiting rabbis in Jerusalem last month that gave a platform to the vicious anti-Israel propaganda group “Breaking the Silence” (“BtS”).

Breaking the Silence is notorious for inventing and publishing throughout the world (and providing to the already biased-against-Israel UN investigators) false, unverifiable, anonymous “testimonies” defaming and demonizing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as war criminals who deliberately target, shoot, and beat up Palestinian and Gazan civilians (See NGO Monitor report).  BtS also defames Jews living in Judea and Samaria with blood libels (that are then propagated throughout the world), such as falsely accusing Jews living in Judea/Samaria of “poisoning the entire water supply” of a Palestinian Arab village” and causing the “entire village being evacuated for a period of several years” – neither of which ever happened.

BtS also lectures and displays its false “photo exhibits” and “testimonies” demonizing Israel, and participates in anti-Israel, pro-BDS events in Scotland, Switzerland, the EU Parliament, South Africa, U.S. college campuses and numerous other international locales.   

The UN Report of the “Independent” Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza War quoted extensively from BtS’s false, anonymous “testimonies.” A Hamas press release complained that even more BtS falsehoods should have been included – namely, “explicit confessions” by “many soldiers affiliated to the Israeli organization of ‘Breaking the Silence’’’ of Israeli soldiers’ and officers’ “war crimes” and “direct instructions to target civilians.”

An Israeli Channel 10 study found that in a sample of ten Breaking the Silence testimonies, two claims of beating detainees and shooting innocents were complete lies, two were exaggerated and four were impossible to verify.  Mr. Admit Deri, the head of Israeli Reservists on the Front, said that the study affirmed what Reservists on the Front had been saying for months, and noted: “This is very serious research that was conducted by journalists who previously stated their support for Breaking the Silence, like Raviv Drucker. In the end it came out that the group does lie. . . . We need to exclude this organization [Breaking the Silence] from all forums and not invite them to speak.” (“More proof of Breaking the Silence’s lies,” Israel National News, July 15, 2016).

NGO Monitor estimates that Breaking the Silence receives 65% of its funding from anti-Israel European groups. BtS also receives funding from the extremist left-wing New Israel Fund (which has funded several groups that malign Israel and promote anti-Israel boycotts) and George Soros’s Open Society Institute (Soros is a notorious self-avowed anti-Zionist.)

Moreover, documents obtained by NGO Monitor (from the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits) show that several BtS funders (including the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, ICCO (primarily funded by the Dutch government), and Oxfam Great Britain) conditioned their grants to BtS on BtS obtaining a minimum number of negative (anti-Israel, anti-IDF) “testimonies.”  See “Europe to Breaking the Silence: Bring Us As Many Incriminating Testimonies As Possible,” NGO Monitor,May 04, 2015.

The Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky (who was a prisoner of conscience in the ex-USSR) wrote: “Breaking the Silence Is No Human Rights Organization – and I Should Know.”

Interestingly, a video clip from the AIPAC/BtS event reveals that BtS knows full well that it is maligning the IDF to promote BtS’s political agenda.  In other words, their “human rights” label is a cover to hide BtS’s true purpose.  In the video clip, founding BtS member Yehuda Shaul admitted:  “Very deep inside, at Breaking the Silence, we don’t believe the IDF is the problem.  We believe the political mission the IDF was sent to carry out is the problem.”    (BtS Facebook page, July 14, 2016 10:37 a.m.) 

Breaking the Silence may also be engaging in anti-Israel espionage.  Israel’sChannel 2 news recently broadcast a video showing Breaking the Silence questioning ex-IDF soldiers (who were undercover agents) to obtain sensitive intelligence information about IDF security operations, equipment, tactical maneuvers, special forces deployed, and tunnel detection methods used along the border with Gaza – all of which had nothing to do with BtS’s supposed interest in exposing immoral IDF activities.   After the video was aired, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated: “Breaking the Silence has crossed another red line.  The investigative security forces are looking into the matter.” See Are Breaking the Silence Traitors?, Israel National News, Mar. 23, 2016.  Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin denounced and accused BtS of treason and espionage after the video aired.  See Breaking the Silence guilty of ‘treason, espionage,’ Likud minister says,” Jerusalem Post, Mar. 18, 2016.

BtS’s Facebook posting (July 14, 2016, 10:37 a.m.) boasted that “we [Breaking the Silence] took part in a panel discussion organized by AIPAC – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Jerusalem, conducted by the director of AIPAC in Israel.”

By organizing and conducting this event, AIPAC gave unwarranted aid, comfort, legitimacy and credibility to a vicious immoral group that invents and purveys lies that damage Israel and weaken the IDF’s ability to protect Israel and the Jewish people.  

Both personally and on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America, I thus urge AIPAC to publicly apologize and disassociate itself from “Breaking the Silence” and to publicly resolve not to organize and conduct events with BtS in the future. 

Morton Klein is the President of the Zionist Organization of America.

David Siegel leaves impressive legacy as his diplomatic tenure in L.A. ends

Later this summer, David Siegel will return home to Israel after five years serving as Israeli consul general for the southwestern United States from his base in Los Angeles. So, what has he been doing during that time?

At the request of the Journal, Siegel’s office compiled a rundown of the diplo-mat’s public activities, which include the following:

• Some 1,500 speaking engagements, mostly in the evenings, at times logging three speeches on the same day.

• Appearances at least once, sometimes more frequently, at every major synagogue in the Los Angeles area.

• Meetings with the principals of nearly all Jewish day schools throughout his jurisdiction, which stretches westward from Colorado and Wyoming to Southern California and Hawaii.

• Seventeen regional town halls, mostly for audiences that generally have had little contact with Israel.

• Attendance at nearly every regional dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the annual galas of other Jewish organizations.

In truth, this list skims only the surface, but it gives a picture that Siegel, now 54, did not accept the Los Angeles post in 2011 for surfing and cocktail parties.

In addition to his public appearances, Siegel worked mainly behind the scenes on many of his key accomplishments. These include a landmark accord for joint entrepreneurial collaboration between Israel and California, working with rabbis to promote religious pluralism in Israel, and bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition to Los Angeles.

It is a given that Israeli diplomats around the world often face international crises of one sort of another on a regular basis.

For Siegel, a few months after his arrival in Los Angeles, he saw as his overriding task to impress upon the nearly 40 million Americans in his region that Iran’s nuclear program was a threat not only to Israel’s
existence, but also to the entire Middle East and beyond.

A seasoned diplomat, Siegel had previously been stationed at Israel’s Foreign Service headquarters in Jerusalem, as well as at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was involved in formulating and implementing Israel’s foreign policy during parts of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Nevertheless, five years ago, given the choice of returning to a senior position at the Israeli embassy in Washington or becoming consul general in Los Angeles, the Siegel family unanimously chose the latter option.

“Los Angeles is considered one of the most important assignments in our foreign service, as a world communication center whose movie and television studios impact every country,” Siegel said during a recent interview in his West Los Angeles office, which is lined with award plaques and citations, alternating with photos of his family.

During Siegel’s first day after arriving in Los Angeles, he met with the editorial staff of the Journal and, in short order, laid out a list of his goals and priorities. Asked to review this wish list five years later, Siegel cited the Israel-California Partnership Agreement as his most important achievement and a real “game changer.”

After two years of laying the groundwork, in March 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an agreement that provides for a working partnership in such areas as water conservation — in which Israel is a world leader — cybersecurity, biotechnology, agricultural technology and cultural/educational exchanges.

This master treaty has since been buttressed by additional agreements between Israel and the cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, Los Angeles County, the Southern California Association of Government and others.

Siegel gives credit for achieving the agreement to the backing of Jewish community organizations, as well as Brown, state legislators including Assemblymen Bob Blumenfield and John Perez, and L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, among many others.

On the priority list of just about every Israeli diplomat, since the opening of L.A.’s first consulate in 1948, has been to channel some of Hollywood’s worldwide clout to the benefit of Israel.

While past consuls general have often focused primarily on enlisting big-name celebrities to speak out in defense of Israel against propaganda attacks, Siegel has focused more on actual productions.

He has met with stars and studio heads, but also worked with production and location executives on movie and TV projects. Thus, he counts as signs of the “prospering relationship” between Israel and Hollywood the shooting of the TV series “Tyrant” and “Big” in Israel, and the openings of offices for Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency in Tel Aviv and Israel’s Keshet mass media company in Los Angeles.

A major event in bridging the 8,000 miles between Hollywood and Tel Aviv was a visit by Israel’s then-president, elder statesman Shimon Peres, to the DreamWorks studio in 2012, where Peres addressed 1,000 Hollywood executives and actors.

Like all of his predecessors, Siegel has been fascinated by the vibrancy and diversity of Los Angeles and its Jewish community, despite the latter’s occasional fractious infighting.

Siegel takes considerable pride that the Israeli consulate has frequently served as a kind of neutral ground, bringing together rabbis of different denominations and organizational heads who, at least, can all join together in their support of Israel.

Born in Burlington, Vt., and the son of a rabbi who was a founder of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, Siegel was educated in a Chabad school and in an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, and later taught at a Reform school. His background enables Siegel to comfortably move among the denominations, and he was able to pull together a task force of rabbis who otherwise rarely interact.

Another of his priorities has been to facilitate trips to Israel by present and future leaders, Jewish and gentile, among them some 7,000 college students. 

Nothing, Siegel said, is more important for Americans, who may know Israel only through newspaper headlines or brief TV news segments, than to see the Jewish state “with their own eyes, in order to understand the complexity and gravity” of the Middle East situation.

“Israel, now a country of close to 9 million people, with 7 million of them Jews, is the culmination of 4,000 years of Jewish history, and we need to show what we have achieved in two generations, especially in one of the most difficult regions in the world,” he said.

While David Siegel has warm words for Los Angeles, his wife, Myra, strikes a positively exuberant note.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here,” she said. “The warmth, the commitment, the can-do attitude of the people from every walk of life are beyond everything I have ever seen,” she said. “It has been an enormous privilege to represent Israel here and to meet so many amazing people.”

Quite amazing, too, were Myra Siegel’s commitments during her stay. She continued working full time at her job with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, while also assuming the social responsibilities of a diplomat’s spouse and shepherding three kids, currently ages 9, 13 and 16, through three separate Jewish day schools.

Asked what aspect of his job has been most frustrating, the consul general first maintained a diplomatic silence, then allowed that the American media, with their emphasis on crises and occasional violence in Israel, rather than on the country’s many accomplishments, can be tremendously frustrating.

He followed up with a shrug, “That’s the nature of the media.” 

The Siegel family arrived in L.A. in September 2011 as the 2012 United States presidential election was beginning to crank up, and they are leaving just as the 2016 election promises a full display of fireworks.

Asked for a comment on the ongoing political campaign and candidates, Siegel raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “God forbid,” adding “Israel must stay above the fray and must never be seen as a partisan.”

Siegel said he was surprised by how many young men and women from the L.A. region are volunteering to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and he helped launch an organization to support the so-called “lone soldiers” while in Israel, as well as to provide moral encouragement to their parents and grandparents back home.

Upon his arrival, Siegel also inherited the long-festering problem of anti-Israel agitation and hostility on college campuses, especially, in his early days, at the Irvine campus of the University of California.

Over the past five years, the situation on the UC campuses has improved considerably, with visits to Israel by UC chancellors to meet their Israeli counterparts, and UC Irvine has now signed 12 agreements for joint research projects with Israeli universities in agriculture, water conservation and stem cell research.

Siegel and his family will return to Israel at the end of July, but before doing so, they are first embarking on the traditional round of farewell parties, with 15 scheduled so far.

In May, the first of these took place at the Skirball Cultural Center at a celebration marking Israel’s Independence Day, where Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a string of public officials heaped praise on Siegel, citing his impact on L.A.’s general populace as well as its Jewish communities.

Other farewells are being hosted at L.A. City Hall as well as by a group of Hollywood friends, AIPAC and by San Diego’s Jewish community, among others.

Asked about future plans, Siegel said he is “looking at various possibilities,” but whatever he does, he said, will be in line with his commitment to Israel.

Sam Grundwerg, a native of Miami Beach, Fla., will succeed him in August. Coincidence or not, the two are the first American-born envoys to serve as Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.

In addition, Israel’s current ambassador in Washington is Ron Dermer, who was born in Miami, and the two have been friends since their childhood days in Miami Beach.

Asked what advice Siegel might pass on to his successor, he mentioned the importance of the continuing fight against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He also urged creation of a long-range program to engage the energy and idealism of the millennial generation in the Diaspora. Noting that some 30,000 civic organizations currently exist in Israel, including some focused on Jewish-Arab ties, Siegel said a ready connection is available for any overseas volunteers or immigrants interested in strengthening and improving Israeli society.

Netanyahu rejects ‘expressions of panic’ over missile defense aid

The White House’s ” target=”_blank”>

Cornel West: Democratic party beholden to AIPAC

Addressing the issue of settlements in the Democratic Party’s platform or calling Israel’s presence in the West Bank as “occupation” would only undermine the “common objective” of reaching a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Hillary Clinton’s representatives on the platform drafting committee said on Thursday.

“I would not support and would, in fact, oppose, the use of the word ‘occupation’ for the very reason that it undermines our common objective – your objective, my objective, and more importantly the objective of Secretary Clinton, of President Obama, of the Democratic Party – to achieve a negotiated two-state outcome,” Robert Wexler, a former Congressman and president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told Dr. Cornel West during a hearing of the Democratic platform drafting committee. “A negotiated two-state outcome will result in an agreement on borders. And one you have borders, the issue that propels your concern regarding what you refer to as ‘occupation’ will be resolved. We have to consistently keep with behavior that promotes and encourages a two-state outcome. That should be the focus of the Democratic platform.”

Wexler also clashed with James Zogby, a pro-Palestinian activist and a Democratic Party insider, over the issue of settlements. “It has been recognized by every U.S. administration that there is an occupation,” Zogby stressed. “Would you not feel that it is more important to include the word ‘occupation’ which our president, this current president has mentioned and every previous president has mentioned, as a way simply of clarifying that to get to two states an occupation has to end.”

Wexler admitted that the Democratic platform’s position on settlements shouldn’t be more or less than the position held by all presidents going back to Johnson. However, by focusing just on settlements, “you undermine the whole equation that supports a negotiated two-state outcome.”

According to Wexler, just like nobody has suggested that the platform should include a solution to the issues of Jerusalem, refugees and security, the party should not litigate the issue of settlement. Instead, he suggested, the platform should outline a blueprint “to bring the two sides to a conclusion where our shared objectives are met – the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.”

Former Congressman Howard Berman, appointed by Hillary Clinton as a member of the drafting committee, echoed the same sentiments. “I could come up with a list – if we want this platform to get into it – of issues like incitement, the failure of the Palestinian Authority leadership to say yes, or yes but, to rewarding the families of [terrorists]. I could go through all of this,” he said. “I don’t want that to be what this platform does.”

“Our differences are really with the Republican Party in how we prosecute peace, not war, in the Middle East,” added Wendy Sherman, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. “We are all in agreement that there needs to be a two-state solution… And getting there is really something that should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.”

During the hearing, Dr. West said, “For too long the Democratic Party has been beholden to AIPAC” and “for so long the U.S. has been so biased toward Israeli security.” He also questioned whether the Democratic Party would respond in the same way if there was “a Palestinian occupation of our precious Jewish brothers and sisters.”

“I support the BDS, not because I think it’s anti-Semitic,” he added. “We have got to fight anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish hatred – it goes hand in hand with every Christian civilization and many Islamic civilizations. It’s wrong, it’s unjust – but that cannot be the excuse of in any way downplaying the unbelievable misery that we see in Gaza, in the West Bank and other places.”

Ted Cruz in, Bernie Sanders out on senators’ letter urging more ‘robust’ defense package for Israel

An AIPAC-backed letter to President Barack Obama urging a more “robust” defense package for Israel reportedly has garnered the signatures of 83 senators, including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz but not Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Reuters reported Monday that 51 Republicans and 32 Democrats, more than four-fifths of the Senate, had signed on to the document.

The letter, initiated by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., was one of the lobbying day requests during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference last month.

Reuters said Cruz, of Texas, had signed and Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, did not. Sanders is the first Jewish candidate to win major party nominating contests.

Israel and the United States are negotiating a 10-year defense assistance package, or Memorandum of Understanding, to follow the package set to expire next year that guarantees $3 billion annually. The new agreement is widely expected to be significantly larger.

AIPAC praised the letter.

“We applaud this statement from the Senate of overwhelming bipartisan support for a robust, new Memorandum of Understanding with Israel that increases aid while retaining the current terms of the existing program,” the prominent Israel lobby’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said in a statement.

The letter does not specify an amount to increase the overall defense assistance package, but notes that Congress is already considering increasing the nearly $500 million annually it budgets for missile defense cooperation, which until now has been considered separately from the defense package.

It cites a series of what it depicts as enhanced threats in the region, including a missile buildup by Hezbollah in Lebanon; Syria becoming a battleground for an array of forces hostile to Israel, including Iran and militant Sunni Islamist groups, and an increase in terrorism in the Sinai.

The letter also notes what it says is the influx of weapons into the region and the possibility that Iran will abrogate the recent nuclear deal and seek nuclear weapons.

“The nature and breadth of the current threats mean that the United States must enhance its investment in the long-term security requirements of our closest Middle East ally,” the letter said. “We urge you to conclude an agreement for a robust MOU that increases aid while retaining the current terms of our existing aid program.”

Hillary Clinton invited to speak at Golda Meir exhibition

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has landed a possible speaking role at a local New Jersey conference, which will feature a special photographic exhibition about the life of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir after she expressed her admiration of Meir during her address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday.

Limmud FSU officials confirmed that they have invited Hillary Clinton to be an honorary speaker at its New York area conference, April 1-3, following her remarks at AIPAC.

During her speech at AIPAC, Clinton – aspiring to become the first female U.S. president – recalled, “Some of us remember a woman, Golda Meir, who led the Israeli government decades ago and wonder what’s taking us so long here in America.”

The Limmud FSU photo exhibition, “Where are all the women leaders? A tribute to Golda Meir,” will celebrate Meir as history’s only woman Mideast leader and will be followed by a special panel discussing the scarcity of women political leaders and its impact.

Limmud FSU New York is a volunteer-driven and pluralistic Jewish festival of culture, creativity.

Jeffrey Goldberg recently 

Getting the story at AIPAC: The forgotten 56 million

So much of life depends on who you bump into. I bumped into a lot of people at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, a gathering of 18,000 highly caffeinated Jews in Washington, D.C., where the sport of choice is the handing out of business cards within 15 seconds of meeting someone, and the subjects of choice are politics, Israel and, this year, Donald Trump.

So, after two days of intense schmoozing about these hot issues, I was glad to bump into an old acquaintance, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who had a whole other issue on her mind. I bumped into her while meeting with local PR impresario Steve Rabinowitz in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, one of several hotels near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, the two giant venues where the main activities took place.

I knew Mizrahi from her days as head of The Israel Project, and I knew she had started a nonprofit venture, RespectAbility, to help people who have disabilities. So, just like that, my AIPAC journey took an unexpected turn, and I ended up spending a good hour immersed in something hardly anyone is talking about during this election season: People with disabilities, and, more specifically, the millions of working-age Americans with disabilities who would love nothing more than to find work and become productive citizens.

Mizrahi is saddened that while the media have been so focused on Trump mania, and the candidates so focused on the usual hot-ticket items such as the economy, national security and immigration, the issue closest to her heart has been virtually forgotten.

“We’re spending so much time obsessing over Donald Trump,” she told me, “but we’re forgetting about things that can really improve people’s lives. The issue of dealing with people with disabilities and helping millions of them find work should be part of every stump speech.”

Considering the scope of the problem, it’s disappointing that it isn’t.

Mizrahi quoted data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that shows 1 in 5 Americans — that’s 56 million Americans — has some form of disability. Of those, about 22 million are working age (18 to 64), but only 34 percent are employed, some only part time and many others earning sub-par wages.

“Every year,” she said, “300,000 young people with disabilities enter the workforce, and most of them end up living on their parents’ couch and living on $14,000 a year in federal benefits. If we can do a better job of integrating them into the workforce, we won’t just save their dignity, we’ll save a lot of tax money.”

To put the issue on the national radar, RespectAbility has asked all of the presidential candidates to complete a questionnaire to help people with disabilities know where candidates stand on the issues.

To give you a sense of the thoroughness of the questionnaire, here’s the first of 16 question areas:

“Do you have a clear and transparent process for making decisions on disability issues? For example, how do you know/learn about disability issues and make decisions on the many policies that impact the one in five of Americans who have a disability? Have you studied the issues? Do you have a disability or a family member with a disability? Have you done meetings with disability leaders or citizens with disabilities? Do you have a disability advisor and/or advisory committee?”

So far, of the presidential candidates still in the running, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have completed the questionnaire, while John Kasich (who Mizrahi lauded for his work in this area as governor of Ohio) filled out parts of it, and the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have yet to submit their answers (details are on therespectabilityreport.com).

For Mizrahi, what’s even more important than their responses to the questionnaire is whether candidates make the issue part of their stump speeches, something no candidate has done. “That’s the true test of how seriously they take the issue,” she said.

It’s also a test of a candidate’s heart: Will you care for people in need even if they don’t carry a lot of political clout? Will you care for an issue that rarely makes it to the front pages or the evening news? And if you’re in the media business, will you feature an issue that will get significantly lower ratings than the latest Trump explosion?

That’s the advantage of going to conferences. All too often, it’s not the stuff happening on the main stage that moves the heart. It’s the stuff on the side, the issues you bump into when you meet someone with fire in her heart.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Trump at AIPAC: Is the pro-Israel lobby going astray?

I watched Donald Trump speak to AIPAC from my office, 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., staring at C-SPAN on my laptop while eating hummus.

So why was it that afterward, I still felt I needed a shower?

I cringe as I write this, but it wasn’t Donald who made me feel kind of yucky. It was AIPAC.

I cringe, because a big part of me has the utmost respect for the important work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I am grateful such a lobbying group exists. Although you wouldn’t know it from watching the coverage of AIPAC’s annual convention, Jews are actually a minority in the world, even in America.

And somehow, to a degree almost as miraculous as Israel’s own creation, a small group of American Jews built an organization that can amplify the pro-Israel cause within the halls of power. Many of us take their work for granted, and even more of us pick at every misstep such a large lobbying group is bound to make.

Given AIPAC’s current size and influence, it is easy to forget the forces that were arrayed against Israel when AIPAC came into existence in 1951: far, far more powerful oil and gas interests with ties to the Arab world, a subtly anti-Semitic Harry Truman administration and State Department, knee-jerk anti-Western reactionaries, arms dealers eager to cash in on the Middle East conflict, numerous nations actively seeking to destroy Israel. Would Israel have survived without the U.S. support garnered through AIPAC’s influence? Probably. Would it have thrived? Unlikely.

And it’s not as if today’s world makes AIPAC any less necessary. Israel is powerful, but it’s hardly a superpower. Big Oil, with its deep ties to OPEC, spends more on lobbying than any other group. I can’t help but wonder if the progressives who constantly slam AIPAC feel so much better letting Saudi and Gulf State emirs have their way on Capitol Hill. In the real world, where powerful financial, political and ideological forces are arrayed against Israel and where politicians are not known for their unwavering moral stands, it’s a good thing AIPAC is good at what it does.

And that’s exactly why Monday’s speeches left me feeling unsettled, if not unclean. Precisely because AIPAC’s mission is so important, I worry that it is going astray.

The world is not privy to the serious policy work, sincere bipartisan outreach and thoughtful analysis that make up so much of AIPAC’s behind-the-scenes success.

What the world saw was one presidential candidate after another throwing red meat to the crowd.

The world heard the crowd cheer when Republican front-runner Donald Trump derided President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. The world heard the crowd applaud Sen. Ted Cruz’s empty promise to “rip this catastrophic Iran deal to shreds.” The world watched as AIPAC’s carefully built reputation for seriousness and bipartisanship was drowned by blind ovations.

You could make the case that forcing one candidate after another to pander to the crowd and make empty promises on the record was, in its way, a show of power, a signal to Israel’s opponents that Washington belongs to AIPAC.

But if that’s the strategy, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

Inside the Verizon Center, there must have been a feeling of power and unity. Outside the Verizon Center, it read differently.

Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy has energized and mobilized the very college students whom AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups say they are most worried about, wasn’t allowed to speak at all. AIPAC said its rules prohibited candidates from making video addresses, though four years ago, the same rules allowed Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to do just that. College students have a word for that: BS.

Though Clinton received enthusiastic applause, her pre-dawn (by Pacific Daylight Time) speech was a distant memory by the time Trump stepped to the podium. The pro-Israel crowd spent prime time cheering the most hard-line and partisan pronouncements.

As I wrote last week, the fact that AIPAC gave Trump a platform without clearly condemning his attacks against Muslims and Mexicans, and his calls to violence only weakened the organization’s own standing among the minorities, moderates and liberals whose support Israel will certainly need in the future. Only Clinton and GOP candidate John Kasich alluded to the low road Trump has taken. Before the speech, AIPAC remained mum.

Its defenders argued that AIPAC is solely a pro-Israel advocacy group, and it shouldn’t be expected to weigh in on anything that doesn’t have to do with defending Israel.

But as I watched Trump speak to frequent ovations, I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t more American Jews like me, who don’t believe you have to check in your Jewish ethics to support a Jewish state.

On Tuesday, AIPAC leaders apparently woke up to the fact that Trump had put his foot in their mouths.  The organization's president, Lillian Pinkus, issued a statement  condemning Trump’s anti-Obama remarks and the (thousands of) audience members who applauded them.

“We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” Pinkus wrote.

Of course by then, the cameras were off. And the damage was done.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Trump to AIPAC: ‘I love the people in this room. I love Israel.’

Some people sat silently. A small group walked out silently. And most stood and applauded as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took the stage on the evening of March 21 at a packed Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., one of two venues for this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference.

Rare for Trump, he had prepared his speech in advance and even used teleprompters in an attempt to stay measured and allay some of Israel supporters’ biggest concerns — that he’s not knowledgeable about or interested in foreign policy and, most worrisome, that he will be “neutral” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he said in February at a town hall and repeated at a subsequent debate. Trump said before the speech that his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was one of the people who helped him write it.

“I didn’t come to you tonight to pander about Israel,” Trump said near the beginning of his address. “That’s what politicians do.” 

He went on to enumerate a list of concerns about the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, explaining how the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles could eventually put the United States within striking distance.

And he reassured the crowd that he has “studied this issue in great detail.”

“I would say, actually, greater by far than everybody else,” Trump boasted, prompting many in the crowd to laugh. “Believe me!”

The conference, which AIPAC officials said drew a record 18,000 attendees, many of whom were from Los Angeles, including delegations of 250 from Sinai Temple, 150 from Valley Beth Shalom and 93 from Beth Jacob Congregation. It was AIPAC’s first policy conference since the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran was approved by the U.S. Senate in September, dealing a major blow to AIPAC, which had attempted unsuccessfully to derail the deal in the Senate. The annual conference began March 20 and ended March 22, and took place at the Verizon Center and the nearby Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a sign of the Policy Conference’s remarkable year-to-year growth.

Although AIPAC’s role as a presidential campaign stop overshadowed the rest of the conference, Iran and fear of Islamist terrorism certainly were not absent from its agenda.

The Iranian nuclear deal and ISIS’ global terror reach were topics of several breakout sessions. “Stop a Nuclear Capable Iran” was one of four items on AIPAC’s lobbying agenda when members went to Capitol Hill on March 22; and AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr said in his address on the evening of March 20 at the Verizon Center, “We have every reason to be proud of our work, to have fought the right fight, and to raise the concerns that continue to this day.”

On the morning of March 21, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was the first of the presidential candidates to address the conference. She was received very well, particularly considering she had supported the Iran deal and, in 2012, arranged secret meetings with Iranian diplomats. She hammered Trump without explicitly naming him, saying, “We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable.” Clinton used the word “neutral” or “neutrality” six times during her address, and exclaimed, to loud applause, and in clear reference to Trump: “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him.”

One of Clinton’s biggest applause lines came when she called out Palestinian leadership, not just Hamas but also Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for inciting violence — something that supporters of Israel want Obama and the State Department to do more forcefully. “Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence, stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs and stop paying rewards to their families!” she said to a cheering crowd.

Despite a blockbuster lineup of speeches by Clinton and Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich, seemingly nothing at this year’s conference could have overshadowed Trump’s appearance, which came amid an improbably successful campaign that has seen him denigrate and insult Mexican immigrants, Muslims, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and nearly every one of his opponents in the Republican primary. He has called for violence against people who disrupt his rallies and offered up grandiose, often-changing policy positions, including plans to deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, levy a 45 percent tariff on imported Chinese goods, temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. and make the Mexican government pay the U.S. government to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

Trump’s position on Israel has been nearly as big an open question as his other core positions. He often cites his role, to the dismay and amusement of some Israel supporters, as the grand marshal in the 2004 Salute to Israel Parade in New York City as proof that he loves Israel. During his speech March 21, he added to that talking point when he said assuming that role in 2004 was dangerous.

“It was a very dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel,” Trump said. “Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk, and I’m glad I did.” 

But his comments in a February town hall that he would be a “neutral guy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have raised questions as to how much a friend of Israel he would be if elected.

He has made attempts to ease those concerns, with little success, such as by saying at a recent Republican debate that the only way to get a good peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is by making the Palestinians think he’s neutral. “I think making a deal would be in Israel’s interests,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview on March 20. “I’ll tell you what, I don’t know one Jewish person that doesn’t want to have a deal, a good deal, a proper deal, but a really good deal.”

And just a few hours before his speech at AIPAC, Trump told reporters Israel should pay back the U.S. government for its defense aid, which amounts to billions of dollars a year. His answer came in response to a question about whether his stated policy to make U.S. allies pay back military aid would include Israel — as he has called for South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to do.

“I think Israel will do that also, yeah, I think Israel do — there are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big league,” Trump said.

At AIPAC, Trump ended his speech by indirectly addressing concerns about his previous “neutral” comment, saying the Palestinians “must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States [and Israel] is unbreakable.”

He also said he wants to see a peace deal, but only one Israel wants, and not one imposed upon the Jewish state by foreign powers — a position he surely knew is popular among AIPAC attendees.

“It’s really the parties that must negotiate a resolution themselves,” Trump said, to cheers. “The United States can be useful as a facilitator at negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away.”

Trump, like Kasich and Cruz, also said that as president he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. And one of Trump’s bigger applause lines came when he exclaimed, “Yay!” and smiled, after saying, “With President Obama in his final year … ” 

On March 22, AIPAC condemned that line and also Trump’s comment that Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus took the stage at the conference’s final general session to say, “We do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage.”

Flanked by CEO Howard Kohr and two other AIPAC leaders, she even criticized those in the crowd who applauded Trump’s criticism of Obama, which certainly sounded like a majority. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”

Cruz, the day’s final speaker, directly followed Trump, and opened his speech with an emotional, “God bless AIPAC!” then immediately proceeded to attack the Republican front-runner. “Let me say at the outset, perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz said, referring to the two times Trump referred to “Israel and Palestine,” instead of “Israel and the Palestinians.”

The Texas senator, who is Trump’s main competitor, covered some of the leading issues on AIPAC members’ minds, including the Iran deal (which he said, as he has before, he will “rip to shreds” on his first day in office), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (university administrations who endorse it should lose federal funding, Cruz said) and the U.S. embassy. He ended his speech by saying “Am Israel Chai!” to a standing ovation.

The prior evening, Vice President Joe Biden addressed a crowd largely dubious of the White House’s commitment to Israel’s security and Obama’s commitment to good relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden drew mostly applause from the crowd, particularly for his strong condemnation of Palestinian Authority leader Abbas for failing to condemn the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. Biden also said “there is no political will” among Israelis or Palestinians to pursue any sort of peace deal at the moment.

However, he also drew some boos and jeers along with the cheers, despite AIPAC’s annual plea for respect toward all speakers, when he praised the Iran deal and criticized Netanyahu’s settlement policy.

“Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts, seizing land, is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution,” Biden told the crowd, which included Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. “Bibi thinks it can be accommodated, and I believe he believes it. I don’t.”

On March 21, at the day’s final session, Netanyahu gave a live video address to AIPAC from Israel, in which he responded to Biden’s charge that Israel doesn’t have the political will for a peace deal. Netanyahu told the crowd he will negotiate with Abbas without preconditions. “There is political will here in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said. “There’s no political will there in Ramallah.” 

Since March 11, when AIPAC confirmed Trump as a speaker, the Republican front-runner’s appearance had been not only highly anticipated, but also condemned, in particular by a group that called itself “Come Together Against Hate” (a play off “Come Together,” AIPAC’s theme for this year’s conference). The group organized a silent walkout during Trump’s appearance, as well as a protest outside the Verizon Center. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Reform movement’s umbrella organization, also announced soon after AIPAC confirmed Trump that it would stage a silent walkout before he took the stage, and would study Torah in the lobby and watch Trump’s speech on television screens in the arena’s corridor.

“I am very curious to know what he will say about Israel,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in an interview the day before Trump’s appearance. “But before he starts talking about Israel, we have months and months of his hateful speech about Muslims, about immigrants, about women and people with disabilities, and, frankly, he’s accountable for all of that.”

AIPAC, though, made media coverage of any walkouts during Trump’s appearance difficult.Reporters inside the Verizon Center were forbidden from interviewing attendees, and reporters could leave the media area only if accompanied by a conference staffer. As of the Journal’s press time, AIPAC’s media team did not respond to a question from the Journal about the severity of the restrictions placed on the media at this year’s conference, which were stricter than at past policy conferences, which have always included barring media from most breakout sessions.

By all available accounts, though, it seems the anticipation in advance of the walkouts was far greater than their actual impact. Only a small handful of audience members could be seen walking out as Trump approached the stage, although Jacobs, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and some other people tweeted photos of themselves learning Torah and watching Trump’s speech from the corridor, as promised. Just after Trump’s address, Jacobs released a short statement that said Trump addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship was “important,” but that it “seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”

“We were disappointed but not surprised that Mr. Trump did nothing tonight to allay our deep concerns about his campaign,” Jacobs said.

As happens every year at AIPAC, journalists and observers tried to draw conclusions from the level of audience applause for each speaker and each major point in every speech. This year, that endeavor seemed particularly difficult. There were few boos for any of the four presidential candidates, and each received raucous applause at various points — some during the introduction, some at the end, and all during portions of their speeches designed to address key sticking points for many AIPAC members, such as when Clinton said, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House” — an implicit but clear acknowledgement of the cool relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. 

Perhaps telling, or maybe not, the audience’s applause for Trump’s “Yay!” comment about Obama’s term expiring sounded louder than the loudest applauses for Clinton, maybe indicating how ready the conference’s attendees — who are divided between Democrats and Republicans — are for a new president who might have warmer relations with Israel’s current government.

AIPAC’s conference has taken on a larger-than-life feel in recent years, particularly since 2009, when Netanyahu began appearing in person. The combination of the prime minister’s uneasy relationship with Obama, the crumbling of peace negotiations with Abbas, the spread of Islamist terrorism, the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and the conference’s location near Capitol Hill has made the annual event a spectacle in both the Jewish and mainstream media, as evidenced by the fact that the major cable news networks televised the speeches of all four presidential candidates.

This year, the candidates’ addresses came just before another set of primaries, in which voters from both parties in Arizona and Utah — and Democrats in the Idaho caucus — were preparing to either push Trump and Clinton closer to their nomination or give hope to their challengers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who declined AIPAC’s invitation to speak, and then was turned down by the group when he offered to speak remotely from the campaign trail. 

The absence of Sanders, too, put AIPAC at the center of an increasingly obvious split within the Democratic Party between younger, more liberal voters who overwhelmingly support Sanders and tend to sympathize with the Palestinians, and older, more traditional pro-Israel Democrats who support Clinton. And in what could have been a shot at Sanders, Obama, Trump or all three, Clinton said in her speech, “Candidates for president who think the United States can outsource Middle East security to dictators, or that America no longer has vital national interests at stake in this region are dangerously wrong” — a possible critique of Sanders’ statement in January that Iranian troops could help defeat ISIS and that America should try to normalize diplomatic relations with the Iranian government.

The most obvious point to come out of the conference is this: The strength of America’s pro-Israel voice is undiminished. The AIPAC 2017 Policy Conference is already scheduled for March 26-28, and anyone who thought the group’s loss on the Iran nuclear deal might stem the Jewish and pro-Israel community’s excitement for this year’s conference, just had to witness the 18,000 people in a packed convention center and sports arena put that idea to rest.

AIPAC turns Trump into politician

How powerful is AIPAC? It did what no one else in America has come close to doing: It tamed the wild verbal beast of Trump. For nearly thirty minutes Monday night in front of close to 18,000 raving Israel fans at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the Donald showed that he, too, can play politician – he read from a prepared speech. Sure, there was the odd ad lib, but compared to his usual rambunctious rambling, his performance Monday night was worthy of a High Holiday sermon delivered by a meticulous rabbi.

It was a speech perfectly crafted for the audience. A speech, in other words, full of red meat for Israel lovers deeply worried about the security of the Jewish state. He threw it all in – crushing Iran, pressuring the Palestinians, moving the embassy, taking on the UN, if it was good for Israel, he said it. There was a rumor in the press gallery that the Trumpster got smart and hired a decent speechwriter. Well, maybe the next Trump-related media obsession will be: Who was the mystery speechwriter?

After hearing for days that people were planning to protest his speech by booing or walking out, unless I missed something from the press row, I saw none of that. Of course, when you have thousands of people listening to what they want to hear, and cheering accordingly, good luck trying to get your high-minded boos in. It reminds me of when rabid Lakers fans were cheering wildly for Kobe Bryant while he was on trial for attempted rape. Being accused of a sexual crime is as bad as it gets, but hey, business is business: Lakers fans want their team to win!

Israel fans want Israel to win, too. I'm sure the great majority of people at the Verizon Center are repulsed by Trump's deeply offensive and unacceptable comments regarding Muslims, women, Mexicans and all the others he has offended during his wild ride to the top of the Republican nomination. I'm sure they realize that this behavior violates the profound Jewish values they cherish.

But at an AIPAC event, you see first hand that Israel trumps everything – even Trump, even Jewish values, even people planning to boo.

Clearly, Trump's speechwriter figured that out.

When the Donald said at the beginning of his speech, “I'm not going to pander because that's what politicians do,” he was the consummate politician. 

He lied, or he exaggerated. You never know with politicians.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Joe Biden to AIPAC: Israeli, Palestinian apathy ‘incredibly disappointing’

Israelis and Palestinians must revive their will for peace, Vice President Joe Biden told AIPAC in a speech that earned thunderous applause for emotional expressions of affection for Israel and scattered boos for criticism of settlements.

Biden’s speech Sunday night to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference will be his last as a public official to the Israel lobby, and the cheers he earned throughout reflect his status as the Obama administration official most loved by the pro-Israel community.

“There is a lack of political will among Israelis and Palestinians to move forward,” Biden said he concluded from his talks with both sides during his trip to Israel earlier this month. “And that’s incredibly disappointing.”

U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down on June 14, just months before war erupted between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In describing the conditions behind the loss of will for peacemaking, Biden emphasized repeatedly the need for Palestinians and others in the Arab world to end incitement.

“No matter what the disagreements the Palestinian people may have with Israel, there is no excuse for killing innocents or remaining silent in the face of terrorism,” Biden said at the Verizon Center, a Washington, D.C., sports arena being used for the first time by AIPAC to accommodate the record-breaking 18,000 activists in attendance.

He said he delivered that message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, earning the conference’s first standing ovation.

“The terrorism has to stop, the incitement … it must stop,” said Biden, who at 73 jogged onto the stage, but whose voice was hoarse.

A good portion of his speech was devoted to condemning terrorism and incitement, and to warning the Palestinians not to seek statehood unilaterally. But Biden also said Israel also should refrain from acts that would scuttle a peace plan.

He cited “steady and systematic” settlement expansion and the sanctioning of illegal settlement outposts under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The remarks earned Biden a scattering of boos from across the cavernous hall.

Biden tied anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, to the “seemingly organized” effort to delegitimize Israel, condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the country to the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“No nation is immune from criticism, but it should not be singled out,” he said.

Biden defended last year’s nuclear accord between Iran and six major powers that was bitterly opposed by AIPAC and the Netanyahu government.

“I hope you are as happy as I am that they [Iran] are further and further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said of the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

Biden stridently defended President Barack Obama’s Israel record.

“Israel is stronger and more secure today because of the Obama and Biden administration, period,” he said, alluding to the tensions that have beset the relationship with the president, the lobby and Netanyahu. “Not despite it, but because of it.”

Of the current round of talks between Israel and the United States over expanding defense assistance for Israel, he said, “Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs.”

Biden told of meeting Golda Meir in 1973, a story he has repeated often to explain the visceral attachment he feels to the Jewish state. But he added a more recent experience — of finding out that his wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were dining just half a mile away from a stabbing spree in Tel Aviv earlier this month that killed an American tourist.

“It’s not imagined, it’s real,” he said of the anxieties Israelis feel. Biden said people asked him why he brought his grandchildren to Israel, considering the risks, and he said for the same reason he brought them to Dachau to understand the Holocaust.

“They need to know what happened, why Israel is so essential,” he said, choking up for a moment. “Israel is a place that creeps into your soul.”

The vice president has visited the country many times since his first trip in 1973, when he was a freshman Democratic senator from Delaware.

The AIPAC conference will host four out of five of the presidential contenders, including Donald Trump. Biden took a veiled shot at the real estate magnate and Republican presidential front-runner, alluding to Trump’s call to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and his broadsides against Muslims.

“Any action that marginalizes a religious group imperils us all,” he said. “The future belongs to the bridge builders, not the wall builders.” The hall erupted into cheers.

Earlier, six Christian and Jewish clergy warned activists not to disrupt any speaker during the conference. A number of activists, including leading rabbis, have plans to walk out or otherwise show displeasure with Trump.

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, alluded to the anxiety that Trump’s rhetoric has sowed throughout much of the Jewish community.

“At a time when American politics can be divisive, when it is easy to be consumed by rhetoric that divide us, we are united,” Kohr said. Israelis and Americans, he said, are “two peoples who embrace tolerance and inclusion of all nations, all religions and people from all walks of life.”

Hillary Clinton to AIPAC: Donald Trump’s foreign policy ‘dangerously wrong’

Hillary Clinton derided Donald Trump as a feckless negotiator and told AIPAC that “walking away” from the Middle East was not an option for the United States, a broadside against the Republican front-runner that signaled her general election strategy.

“We need steady hands, not a president who says he is neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday,” the former secretary of state and front-runner for the Democratic presidential nod said Monday addressing the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival,” Clinton said, to repeated cheers and applause. “Some things aren’t negotiable and anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business in being our president.”

Trump, a real estate magnate, has staked much of his candidacy on his skills as a negotiator, and has made that the centerpiece of his pledge to seek Israeli-Palestinian peace. He also has said he would be neutral when brokering peace.

Clinton’s speech, running more than 30 minutes, made clear she would cast her experience, as chief diplomat, senator from New York and first lady, against Trump’s bid to stake his claim to the presidency based on his success as a businessman.

Clinton’s campaign has in recent days pivoted toward a strategy of challenging Trump’s self-presentation, as the candidates have emerged as their party’s likely candidates in the general election.

Clinton also took aim at calls to decrease American involvement in the region. “Candidates for president who thinks the United States of America can outsource Israel’s security to dictators or that America no longer has vital interests in this region are dangerously wrong,” she said.

Two of the Republican candidates, Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as Clinton’s Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have called for a decreased American profile in the region and greater reliance on regional armies.

Clinton listed Trump’s more controversial calls, including a ban on Muslim entry into the United States and the violence he has at times encouraged at his rallies.

“Tonight, you will get a glimpse of a potential U.S. foreign policy that would insult our allies, not engage with them and embolden our adversaries, not defeat them,” she said, referring to Trump’s AIPAC speech scheduled for Monday night.

She recalled the U.S. failure to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe and noted the forthcoming Purim holiday, when Esther risked her life to speak up against oppression of Jews.

“If you see bigotry oppose it if you see violence condemn it, if you see a bully stand up to him,” she said to a standing ovation. “Let us never be neutral or silent in the face of bigotry.”

Sanders declines AIPAC invitation

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday declined an invitation to speak at AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., next week, citing a scheduling conflict. 

In a letter to Bob Cohen, AIPAC’s president, Sanders said his campaign schedule next week will prevent him from attending the largest pro-Israel annual gathering. 

“I would very much have enjoyed speaking at the AIPAC conference,” Sanders wrote. “Obviously, issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world. Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending.”

“Since AIPAC has chosen not to permit candidates to address the conference remotely, the best that I can do is to send you a copy of the remarks that I would have given if I was able to attend.”

AIPAC extended invitations to all of the current presidential candidates. “Our Policy Conference is also likely to be one of the few venues that these candidates will have to speak to a bipartisan audience between now and Election Day,” AIPAC said in a statement. “We are delighted for AIPAC to serve as the venue for presidential candidates to share their perspectives, and we look forward to welcoming them.”

Hillary Clinton is expected to address AIPAC during the Monday morning session, while Republican candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich will speak in the evening. 

Sanders is the only candidate who expects his remarks to be distributed or somehow be read aloud to the 18,000 attendees.

Netanyahu cancels DC trip, AIPAC appearance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled initial plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for AIPAC’s Police Conference later this month, Channel 10 reported on Monday.

According to the Channel 10′s Moav Vardi, Netanyahu was not able to arrange a meeting with President Barack Obama ahead of his upcoming trip to Cuba on March 21 and 22.

The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is scheduled for March 20-22. Last month, Israel Hayom reportedthat the Israeli Prime Minister was going to speak at the annual gathering, as he has done the past years. 

Netanyahu and Obama were expected to meet in the Oval Office to finalize the details on a 10-year MOU between the U.S. and Israel. But outstanding disagreements over the U.S. aid package has made it difficult to arrange a meeting so close to the President’s trip to Cuba and Mexico.

Vice President Joe Biden is expected to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday on his first trip to Israel in six years. At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said that the visit is a testament to the strong ties between the two countries. “There have been those who have already predicted the collapse of this relationship – but that is not the case,” he said. “The ties are strong at all levels, and also with regards to the challenges that we share in our region. I will, of course, discuss this with the vice president during his visit.”

Obama to visit Cuba during AIPAC’s Policy Conference

President Barack Obama may not be attending AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington D.C. in the last year of his presidency.

The White House announced on Thursday that the President will travel to Cuba to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, entrepreneurs, and “Cubans from different walks of life” on March 21 and 22.

The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is also scheduled for March 20-22. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit DC to address the annual gathering. 

As of now, no meeting has been scheduled between Netanyahu and Obama, Israel Hayom reported. Following the announcement of the President’s Cuba trip, it is now unclear whether the two leaders will even meet while the Israeli Prime Minister is in town. 

This will mark the second consecutive year that Netanyahu is in town for AIPAC’s conference and is not being invited to the White House. Last year, Netanyahu came to address a joint session of Congress against the President’s will. But after the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the ongoing negotiations over an increased security package, it was expected that Netanyahu and Obama would meet in March to finalize the details on a 10-year MOU between the U.S. and Israel. Though, a meeting may still take place when the President returns from Cuba on the 22nd. 

Obama and Netanyahu last met in November. 

A week and a half before Netanyahu travels to Washington, Vice President Joe Biden will visit Israel, Netanyahu announced on Sunday.

AIPAC: Obama administration peddling ‘inaccuracies’ about lobby

AIPAC said the Obama administration is peddling inaccuracies about the pro-Israel lobby’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

AIPAC President Robert Cohen emailed the organization’s activists on Monday, linking to a New York Times article published last week about tensions arising between the lobby and the administration, and said it reflects “multiple inaccuracies stemming from claims by the administration.”

AIPAC’s facts, Cohen said “are well-substantiated and accurate.” President Barack Obama has said that opponents to the deal have peddled arguments distorting or omitting elements of the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

An AIPAC affiliate, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, has run a TV ad addressing the substance of the deal.

“This ad does not single out the president in any way,” Cohen said. According to the Times article, Obama in a meeting last week with Jewish leaders conflated the CNFI ad with others attacking Obama personally.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee treated administration speakers who addressed about 700 activists who flew in last month to lobby against the deal “with courtesy and respect,” Cohen said. Administration officials have said that the speakers, among them top negotiators on the deal, were not permitted to take questions. AIPAC said the officials were free to use the 30 minutes allocated them as they pleased.

Cohen noted that AIPAC took no position on the Iraq War. Obama has said that some of the opponents of the Iran nuclear deal backed that conflict, but has been careful to distinguish these from those who oppose the deal out of concern for Israel. Some defenders of the deal have made the link between AIPAC and the Iraq War on social media.

Congress has until mid-to-late September to consider whether or not to reject the deal.

What if there’s no Iran nuclear deal?

If you oppose the Iran deal, you have to ask yourself one question: So then what?

Saying the deal stinks without offering an alternative is not a thoughtful position, it’s an empty slogan.

Until now, the debate has really just been a piling-on against the deal.  Supporters are against the ropes and opponents, Ronda Rousey-like, are throwing everything they have against it. And make no mistake, they have a lot.  

But as August recess begins and the countdown to the congressional vote draws closer, it is time to push deal opponents on the hard reality of their preferred alternative. What might happen if Congress is able to override the president’s veto? How will Iran react? What will our partners in this deal do? In short, what happens if you get what you want?

Case in point: AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee plans to devote millions of dollars and much of its political capital to defeating the deal. Its website offers thousands of words dissecting every weakness in the deal.  What is AIPAC offering instead? It all boils down to three sentences. This is how AIPAC describes the world we will face the day the deal collapses:

“We strongly believe that the alternative to this bad deal is a better deal. Congress should reject this agreement, and urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal that will truly close off all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon. Congress should insist on a better deal.”

Let me summarize: Instead of the current deal, America will keep sanctions and negotiate a better one. That’s the plan. So, my question is, is that a good plan? And how does it compare to the current deal?

I spent a good part of my week researching this question. Here’s what I found: AIPAC’s alternative lies somewhere between unlikely and impossible.  

For one thing, it is unlikely that the United States can maintain economic pressure. Iran could agree to comply with the deal in accordance with our partners, thus isolating the United States and making it difficult for the U.S. to convince the world to re-impose sanctions. By removing its centrifuges, sealing over its plutonium reactor and allowing inspectors, Iran would trigger the unfreezing of assets, only a small portion of which is held by the United States.  We would end up with an Iran with money and no constraints.

It’s unclear at that point whether the United States could wield its enormous economic leverage to get other countries to continue sanctions. Even if, say, France went along, would Russia? Would China? Or would these countries find ways to get around sanctions, including developing their own alternative to the SWIFT banking network that Iran had been successfully excluded from?

Rep. Adam Schiff, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat from Los Angeles who announced he would support the deal this week, addressed in some detail what the deal’s opponents have thus far avoided.  

“It is only prudent to expect that if Congress rejects a deal agreed to by the Administration and much of the world,” Schiff wrote in a position paper, “the sanctions regime will — if not collapse — almost certainly erode. Even if we could miraculously keep Europe on board with sanctions, it is hard to imagine Russia, China, India or other nations starved for oil or commerce, agreeing to cut off business with Iran. The use of American financial sanctions is a powerful and coercive force, but relies upon at least the tacit acceptance of our objectives, something that would be lacking if we reject a deal agreed to by the other major powers.”  

If maintaining sanctions is not a given, what about AIPAC’s call to renegotiate “a better deal”? Back in mid-July, Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote what is still the only extended think piece on the alternative to the deal and, with varying degrees, the experts I spoke with seem to share his opinion. 

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can just go back to square one with negotiations,” Satloff concluded,  “or that we can keep the current sanctions regime in place as if the past two years of diplomacy never happened. We will be in a different place, much grayer than before.”

Into this murky future, let’s consider what will happen in Iran itself.    

“Iran’s pyromania-style foreign policy will only deepen, internal repression will grow, and the role of Russia and China in entrenching the crisis vis-à-vis the West will become clearer,” Iranian journalist Ahmad Rafat wrote in the Israeli paper Local Call. “It would be safe to assume that the Iranian regime will become Russia’s main ally and form a new bloc against the West and the United States.”

Opponents of this deal raise many good points. President Barack Obama would be wise, if he wants to sell it, to come up with firm proposals to mitigate the deal’s downsides.   

But let’s stop pretending that the deal’s opponents are offering a way forward that is any more certain, or any less dangerous.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

White House briefing of AIPAC activists ends in communication breakdown

Got questions about the Iran nuclear deal? Too bad, if you were an AIPAC activist at a briefing this week with top Obama administration officials.

At the briefing Wednesday, Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee director, stopped his activists from asking questions. The question is why? And what does the leak of the story mean?

Did the Obama administration bigfoot AIPAC and muscle into the pro-Israel group’s lobbying session only to disingenuously complain when administration officials ran out of their allotted time? Or was AIPAC not sufficiently accommodating when administration officials asked to make their case to pro-Israel activists?

Here’s what happened, as confirmed by four people close to the top Obama officials who spoke anonymously, as well as an AIPAC spokesman, who spoke on the record.

AIPAC flew between 600 and 700 activists in this week from around the country to lobby against the sanctions-relief-for-nuclear-restrictions deal reached July 14 between the major powers and Iran.

AIPAC opposes the deal, saying it endangers Israel and U.S. interests, and wants Congress to exercise its power to kill the deal within two months – by the end of September or thereabouts.

Hence the fly-in, just before Congress’ August break.

President Barack Obama, who backs the deal, got wind of the fly-in and asked his staff to offer to give the AIPAC activists a briefing on the deal from the administration’s perspective.

It was all very last-minute, AIPAC said, but the pro-Israel lobby budgeted half an hour Wednesday morning for the officials.

At 8 a.m., the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough; the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who led the Iran talks, and Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions, were set to speak at a hotel to the activists.

The three gave presentations, splitting the 30 minutes between them, and then asked for questions. Kohr stepped in and said no questions.

This is where the accounts of the Obama administration officials differ from AIPAC’s version of events.

The officials said they were told there would be no questions when they scheduled the meeting, but called for them anyway, and were shut down.

AIPAC said the officials could have taken as many questions as they liked within the allotted 30 minutes, but chose not to and ran out of time.

Here’s the administration account, relayed to me by a source close to all three speakers, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The administration asked to come meet with the AIPAC members in town to talk to members of Congress, which AIPAC agreed to, but the audience was told that the administration officials would not be allowed to take audience questions,” the source said.

“White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and acting Under Secretary of Treasury Adam Szubin addressed the 600-plus AIPAC members in town this week. They were only given 30 minutes to speak where they made the case for this deal, and all three offered the audience the opportunity to ask questions given how important this topic is. But the AIPAC moderator ended the session before they could take any.”

On the other hand, AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told me the format was entirely up to the speakers – they could have launched straight into questions if they chose to.

“It is absolutely not true that administration officials were denied an opportunity to take questions and answers at our event,” Wittman told me in an email.

“At the last minute, the administration requested to address our seven hundred activists who were in Washington to lobby against the flawed Iran nuclear deal. We granted their request and afforded them thirty minutes to make their case in any way they chose. In fact, we actually suggested that they take questions from the audience. Instead, the administration sent three officials and used more than their allotted time with their remarks rather than devoting any of their time for questions.”

So who’s right? It’s hard to say. But sometimes the fact that a side, in this case, supporters of the deal, is trying to get out a story is more important than the story.

Administration officials are worried that their message is not getting through unfiltered to the Jewish community. The officials badly wanted to banter with the activists.

The frustration explains Obama’s angry tone last night when he asked liberal activists to speak more loudly than an AIPAC-affiliated group dumping millions into anti-deal TV ads.

It also explains why Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, gave a private briefing this morning to top Jewish organizational leaders.

Don’t expect the briefings to stop.

Israel’s lesson for a Latina

I’d been to Israel before as a CBS news correspondent covering Saddam Hussein lobbing Scuds into Tel Aviv. I marveled at Israel’s spirit and saw firsthand how critical America’s alliance is to Israel’s security. But my last trip was very different. 

I was part of an elite delegation of multi-faith Latino leaders, invited by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that brings influential leaders of diverse communities to visit Israel with the hope we will return and use our influence on Congress to champion strong bipartisan U.S.-Israeli relations. 

I’m Jewish by birth but did not grow up Jewish. I returned to my faith when I adopted my child and had my bat mitzvah at 50. I was hungry for more understanding, and the intensive education promised on this visit compelled me to go.

Our travels gave us such intimate windows into the hearts of many in Israel, but what stood out for me are the Israelis who transcend the politics in ways that change lives. 

One of them was the “Save a Child’s Heart” program at the Wolfson Hospital. At this most remarkable pediatric hospital, children who have heart problems come from all over to be saved with specialty surgeries at no cost to the families. Kids come from all over Africa and, most remarkably, from enemy Arab states. One child from Gaza was here with his mom, who clearly understood he would have died without Israeli intervention to care for him. As a mother myself, I reached out to this boy’s mom, who was wearing a hijab, standing by her son’s bedside. For a moment I held her hand in mine and looked into her eyes with an understanding without words between mothers. I felt her deep emotion but also the inherent paradox of having to turn to her enemy to save her son.

When I asked the lead surgeon, who runs this program and operates on these kids, how it’s possible to receive these children from enemy territories, he said it happens all the time — that he does not see the ethnicity, race, religion or politics of a child in need; he sees a beating heart in need of saving. Even the daughter of a top leader of Hamas in Gaza is also said to have been admitted into an Israeli hospital for emergency treatment. In fact, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior leaders of the Islamist group in Gaza, is said to have had several family members who have sought treatment from Israeli doctors. The head of the recovery home for these kids described it best when she said, “In some ways, we are our own United Nations at work every day.”

Later, we visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, an innovative educational and spiritual approach to restoring wholeness for children in need. It’s a home for broken and abused kids who are received from all over the world. Whatever war, abuse or breakdown that sent them here, this was not just an institutionalized facility to house damaged souls; this was a home to heal them.  The founder’s core philosophy is restoring wholeness of being. He’s made it his life’s mission. There are no throw-away children here, and this home does not turn them away at 18. All are welcome for life: They can get married here, stay on and work, return to visit with their children and remain connected if they wish, like family forever.

Our tour guide was one of those children who arrived with a huge wave of immigrants from Ethiopia as a young child. How I marveled at her story and those of millions of immigrants from more than 100 countries who’ve been received in Israel.

Since its founding, this tiny Jewish state with limited resources has absorbed millions and serves as a safe haven for Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and those still today fleeing persecution, whether from Yemen, Africa or, now, more from France and other European nations as dangerous anti-Semitism rages anew.

As a Latina American, passionate about immigration reform in our country, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by Israel’s embrace of so many who seek refuge here. It’s no panacea — there are many challenges here, I am told, especially with new arrivals from Darfur. But still, Israel has been a beacon of sanctuary for so many and, despite all its challenges, she has opened her doors. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed to have just sent back all those thousands of women and children who arrived at our own doorstep last summer, fleeing for their lives from the perils of Central America. Many never receive even the fair hearings for asylum that is our promise, and instead experience something called “rocket docket” court cases that spin mothers and children back as fast as they arrived, without a legitimate hearing to assess their claims. God knows what they returned to.

I couldn’t help but feel their plight more powerfully as a consequence of all I was seeing here. Our Latino delegation couldn’t help but see parallels in our shared challenges, not just on immigration, but on a shared understanding that Latino issues are America’s issues in much the same way Israel’s concerns must be America’s concerns.

I must be honest: When I first embarked on this educational mission, I questioned the importance of Israel being included in our national Latino agenda. We have so much that needs to be addressed regarding an alarming lack of access to education in our community, much-needed capital to grow our businesses and desperate need for leadership roles to represent our many interests. I couldn’t imagine where Israel fits into our conversation. I had to come to Israel to understand it. What I witnessed in Israel reminded me of a Mayan greeting I learned long ago during my Mayan studies: In Lak’ech Ala K’in. It’s the Maya’s living code of the heart that means, “I am you and you are me.” It’s a statement of unity and oneness. That’s how I felt each day in Israel. 

In fact, as I write this, I find myself reaching often to touch my necklace, which I had such fun haggling for in the Arab Quarter. It depicts the Old City in silver. It holds such memory and meaning for me, this place that is a light unto all nations — and is now a light that shines within me. 

Shalom and In Lak’ech Ala K’in.

For a full account of Fernandez's trip to Israel, click here.

Giselle Fernandez is a five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, producer, filmmaker and Latin media marketing entrepreneur.

U.S. ambassador to UN says U.S.-Israel relationship transcends politics

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told the main U.S. pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC on Monday that the U.S.-Israel relationship transcends politics “and it always will.”

Ambassador Samantha Power addressed the group shortly before a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose fierce criticism of President Barack Obama's drive to reach an Iran nuclear deal has created tensions in U.S.-Israel ties.

Senior U.S. officials have said the politics surrounding a speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress scheduled for Tuesday threaten to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship, one of the United States' closest alliances.

Power drew a distinction, however, between politics and U.S. policy.

“We believe firmly that Israel's security and the U.S-Israel partnership transcends politics, and it always will,” she said, adding that the United States would take whatever steps were needed to protect its allies.

She repeated Obama's frequent statement that the United States would not allow a nuclear-armed Iran. Netanyahu, and Republican U.S. politicians who control Congress, have expressed deep skepticism that the deal the Obama administration is now negotiating with Iran will stop Tehran from obtaining the bomb.

Netanyahu warns an Iran deal could threaten Israel’s existence

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United States on Monday that the nuclear deal it is negotiating with Iran could threaten Israel's survival and insisted he had a “moral obligation” to speak up about deep differences with President Barack Obama on the issue.

Even as he set the stage for a Washington visit that has strained U.S.-Israeli relations, Netanyahu sought to lower the temperature ahead of his controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, saying he meant no disrespect for Obama and appreciated U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel.

The Israeli prime minister left little doubt, however, about his objections to ongoing talks between Iran and world powers, which he said would allow Tehran to become a nuclear-armed state.

“As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them,” Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby.

Netanyahu said the relationship between his country and the United States was “stronger than ever” and not in crisis.

The tense personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has sunk to a new low over the Israeli leader’s planned speech to Congress just weeks before an end-of-March deadline for a framework nuclear accord with Iran.

Netanyahu is expected to press U.S. lawmakers to block a deal with Iran that he contends would endanger Israel’s existence but which Obama’s aides believe could be a signature foreign policy achievement for the president.

The invitation to Netanyahu was orchestrated by Republican congressional leaders with the Israeli ambassador without advance word to the White House, a breach of protocol that infuriated the Obama administration and the president's fellow Democrats.

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during the visit, on the grounds that doing so only two weeks before Israeli elections could be seen as interference.

The partisan nature of this dispute has turned it into the worst rift in decades between the United States and Israel, which normally navigates carefully between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Netanyahu's critics have suggested that scuttling the Iran negotiations could raise the risk of war in the Middle East.

At the AIPAC conference, Netanyahu declared that the days are over when the Jewish people would remain “passive in the face of threats to annihilate us,” saying that today in Israel “we defend ourselves.”

He stopped short of threatening to attack nuclear sites operated by Iran.


Netanyahu insisted that he had no intention of politicizing the U.S.-Israeli relationship and predicted it would weather the latest disagreement.

“My speech (to Congress) is not intended to show disrespect for President Obama and the office that he holds,” Netanyahu said. “I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel.”

Netanyahu went on to point out differences regarding the talks with Iran. “Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those nuclear weapons,” he said.

He said he would warn U.S. lawmakers that a deal with Iran “could threaten the survival of Israel.” To underscore the point, he drew attention to a map that he said depicted Iranian ties to terrorism across the world.

Iran has denied that it is seeking nuclear weapons. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal.

Speaking at the conference just before Netanyahu, Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, offered assurances that the Obama administration “will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period.”

She touted the more than $20 billion in U.S. “foreign military financing” provided to Israel since Obama took office in 2009, and received a warm reception from the audience.

Obama is scheduled to be interviewed by Reuters on Monday afternoon. His national security adviser, Susan Rice, is due to address the AIPAC conference on Monday evening.

Rice's speech will be delivered less than a week after she said the partisanship caused by Netanyahu's looming address was “destructive to the fabric of U.S.-Israeli ties.”

As he prepared for talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry quietly cautioned Israel not to undercut nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“We are concerned by reports that suggest selective details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days,” he said, apparently alluding to Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Tuesday.

Last month, U.S. officials accused the Israeli government of leaking information to the Israeli media to undermine the Iran negotiations and said this would limit further sharing of sensitive details about the talks.

Netanyahu wants Iran to be barred from enriching uranium, which puts him at odds with Obama's view that a deal should allow Tehran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes. Netanyahu has said this would allow Iran to become a “threshold” nuclear weapons state.

Critics have suggested that Netanyahu's visit is an election stunt that will play well with Israeli voters when they go to the polls on March 17.

Netanyahu faces a stiff challenge from a center-left coalition more amenable to Obama’s approach on Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

His planned address to Congress has also driven a rare wedge between Netanyahu's government and congressional Democrats upset at how the invitation was issued without consultation with them or the White House.

Some two dozen or more of them plan to boycott the speech on Tuesday, according to unofficial estimates.

Netanyahu says U.S.-Israel relationship ‘stronger than ever’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that the alliance between his country and the United States is “stronger than ever” and will continue to improve.

Netanyahu, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, said reports that the relationship between the two countries was fraying were “not only premature, they're just wrong.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full speech to AIPAC

Thank you. Wow, 16,000 people. Anyone here from California? Florida? New York? Well, these are the easy ones. 

How about Colorado? Indiana? I think I got it. Montana? Texas? You're here in record numbers. 

You're here from coast to coast, from every part of this great land. And you're here at a critical time. You're here to tell the world that reports of the demise of the Israeli-U.S. relations are not only premature, they're just wrong. You're here to tell the world that our alliance is stronger than ever. And because of you, and millions like you, across this great country, it's going to get even stronger in the coming years.  

Thank you Bob Cohen, Michael Kassen, Howard Kohr and all the leadership of AIPAC. Thank you for your tireless, dedicated work to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States. I want to thank, most especially, Members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans. I deeply appreciate your steadfast support for Israel, year in, year out. You have our boundless gratitude.

I want to welcome President Zeman of the Czech Republic. Mr. President, Israel never forgets its friends. And the Czech people have always been steadfast friends of Israel, the Jewish people, from the days of Thomas Masaryk at the inception of Zionism.

You know, Mr. President, when I entered the Israeli army in 1967, I received a Czech rifle. That was one of the rifles that was given to us by your people in our time of need in 1948. So thank you for being here today.

Also here are two great friends of Israel, former Prime Minister of Spain Jose Maria Aznar and as of last month, former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. Thank you both for your unwavering support. You are true champions of Israel, and you are, too, champions of the truth.

I also want to recognize the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, for your genuine friendship, Dan, and for the great job you're doing representing the United States and the State of Israel.

And I want to recognize the two Rons. I want to thank Ambassador Ron Prosor for the exemplary job he's doing at the U.N. in a very difficult forum.

And I want to recognize the other Ron, a man who knows how to take the heat, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. Ron, I couldn't be prouder to have you representing Israel in Washington.

And finally, I want to recognize my wife, Sara, whose courage in the face of adversity is an inspiration to me. Sara divides her time as a child psychologist, as a loving mother, and her public duties as the wife of the prime minister. Sara, I'm so proud to have you here with me today, to have you with me at my side always.

My friends, I bring greetings to you from Jerusalem, our eternal undivided capital. And I also bring to you news that you may not have heard. You see, I'll be speaking in Congress tomorrow.

You know, never has so much been written about a speech that hasn't been given. And I'm not going to speak today about the content of that speech, but I do want to say a few words about the purpose of that speech.

First, let me clarify what is not the purpose of that speech. My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both.

I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel, security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the U.N., and much more, some things that I, as prime minister of Israel, cannot even divulge to you because it remains in the realm of the confidences that are kept between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. I am deeply grateful for this support, and so should you be.

My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate. An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties and so it must remain.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have worked together with friends from both sides of the aisle in Congress to strengthen Israel and our alliance between our two countries, and working together, they have provided Israel with generous military assistance and missile defense spending. We've seen how important that is just last summer.

Working together, they've made Israel the first free trade partner of America 30 years ago and its first official strategic partner last year. They've backed Israel in defending itself at war and in our efforts to achieve a durable peace with our neighbors. Working together has made Israel stronger; working together has made our alliance stronger. And that's why the last thing that anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. And I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue.

Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue. Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel. Iran is the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Look at that graph. Look at that map. And you see on the wall, it shows Iran training, arming, dispatching terrorists on five continents. Iran envelopes the entire world with its tentacles of terror. This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.

And this same Iran vows to annihilate Israel. If it develops nuclear weapons, it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen.

And as prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there's still time to avert them. For 2000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves.

Well, no more, no more.

The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us, those days are over. Today in our sovereign state of Israel, we defend ourselves. And being able to defend ourselves, we ally with others, most importantly, the United States of America, to defend our common civilization against common threats.

In our part of the world and increasingly, in every part of the world, no one makes alliances with the weak. You seek out those who have strength, those who have resolve, those who have the determination to fight for themselves. That's how alliances are formed.

So we defend ourselves and in so doing, create the basis of a broader alliance.

And today, we are no longer silent; today, we have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice.

I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that's devouring country after country in the Middle East, that's exporting terror throughout the world and that is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, lots of them.

Ladies and gentlemen, Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those weapons. Now disagreements among allies are only natural from time to time, even among the closest of allies. Because they're important differences between America and Israel. The United States of America is a large country, one of the largest. Israel is a small country, one of the smallest. America lives in one of the world's safest neighborhoods. Israel lives in the world's most dangerous neighborhood. America is the strongest power in the world. Israel is strong, but it's much more vulnerable. American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.

You know I think that encapsulates the difference. I've been prime minister of Israel for nine years. There's not a single day, not one day that I didn't think about the survival of my country and the actions that I take to ensure that survival, not one day. And because of these differences, America and Israel have had some serious disagreements over the course of our nearly 70-year-old friendship.

Now, it started with the beginning. In 1948, Secretary of State Marshall opposed David Ben-Gurion's intention to declare statehood. That's an understatement. He vehemently opposed it. But Ben-Gurion, understanding what was at stake, went ahead and declared Israel's independence.

In 1967, as an Arab noose was tightening around Israel's neck, the United States warned Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that if Israel acted alone, it would be alone. But Israel did act — acted alone to defend itself.

In 1981, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor at Osirak. The United States criticized Israel and suspended arms transfers for three months. And in 2002, after the worst wave of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel's history, Prime Minister Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield. The United States demanded that Israel withdraw its troops immediately, but Sharon continued until the operation was completed. There's a reason I mention all these. I mention them to make a point. Despite occasional disagreements, the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger, decade after decade.

And our friendship will weather the current disagreement, as well, to grow even stronger in the future. And I'll tell you why; because we share the same dreams. Because we pray and hope and aspire for that same better world; because the values that unite us are much stronger than the differences that divide us values like liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, compassion.

As our region descends into medieval barbarism, Israel is the one that upholds these values common to us and to you.

As Assad drops bell bombs on his own people, Israeli doctors treat his victims in our hospitals right across the fence in the Golan Heights As Christians in the Middle East are beheaded and their ancient communities are decimated, Israel's Christian community is growing and thriving, the only one such community in the Middle East.

As women in the region are repressed, enslaved, and raped, women in Israel serve as chief justices, CEOs, fighter pilots, two women chief justices in a row. Well, not in a row, but in succession. That's pretty good. In a dark, and savage, and desperate Middle East, Israel is a beacon of humanity, of light, and of hope.

Ladies and gentlemen, Israel and the United States will continue to stand together because America and Israel are more than friends. We're like a family. We're practically mishpocha.

Now, disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family.

Rooted in a common heritage, upholding common values, sharing a common destiny. And that's the message I came to tell you today. Our alliance is sound. Our friendship is strong. And with your efforts it will get even stronger in the years to come.

Thank you, AIPAC. Thank you, America. God bless you all.

Day 2 at AIPAC: Bibi’s pre-Congress speech and (less) anxiety about Speechgate

This story has been updated: 

In front of 16,000, Rice opposes AIPAC’s Iran agenda, Menendez opposes Rice

National Security Advisor Susan Rice‘s speech on Monday may go down as the most contentious in recent memory at an AIPAC policy conference, during a historically tense period of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

She began by heaping praise on Israel, saying some words in Hebrew and making clear – to roaring applause – that a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program is worse than “no deal.”

But then her remarks took a sharp turn to highlight the Obama administration’s differences over Iran policy with AIPAC.

“We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal,” Rice said of the ongoing negotiations with Iran. “I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely.”

And with that, Rice left no room for doubt – in front of 16,000 of Israel’s most ardent American supporters – that she and the Obama administration oppose what AIPAC has tasked its delegates with as they lobby Capitol Hill on Tuesday; namely, asking Congress to pass legislation, in the midst of negotiations, that would automatically hit Iran with sanctions if a deal is not reached by the March 24 deadline. AIPAC is also supporting a bill that would give Congress final say on any deal reached with Iran, a bill the White House said President Obama would veto.

The audience members, instead of booing Rice as she labeled their goal an “unachievable ideal”, applauded loudly, clearly signaling, in as polite a manner as they could, that they disagree.

Rice continued: “If that is our goal our partners will abandon us and undermine the very sanctions we have opposed so effectively together. Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position.”

Criticizing the aim of of de-nuclearizing Iran as unrealistically expecting Iran to “unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses”, Rice then said, “Some would argue that we should just impose sanctions and walk away.”

And again, the crowd, in disagreement, gave a loud and energetic applause. Unfazed, Rice continued:

“Congress has played a hugely important role in helping to build our sanctions on Iran but they shouldn’t play the spoiler now,” she said. “Additional sanctions or restricted legislation enacted during the negotiations would blow up the talks, divide the international community and cause the United States to be blamed for failure to reach a deal.”

Although Rice spent much of the speech documenting both her support for Israel when she served as ambassador to the U.N., and the Obama administration’s support of the U.S. ally, her explicit, on the record opposition to AIPAC’s agenda this year stole the show.

And it was amplified because of her comments on “Charlie Rose” on Feb. 24 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday address to Congress would be “destructive of the fabric of the relationship”, comments that upset many attendees here.

Shortly before Rice's address, Obama gave an interview in the White House to Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason, in which he said new sanctions wouldn't make Iran abandon its nuclear program and that Netanyahu “made all sorts of claims” when the interim nuclear deal was announced in November 2013, claims that Obama said haven't come true.

“We should let these negotiations play out,” Obama said. Asked whether he agreed with Rice's characterization of Netanyahu's upcoming speech as “destructive”, the President responded, “I don’t think it’s permanently destructive. I think that it is a distraction.” 

Obama further implied that Boehner invited Netanyahu for partisan reasons and that he's “less concerned” with Netanyahu's address than with Iranian nuclear legislation Congress is considering; the bills that AIPAC supports.

Rice’s speech Monday evening followed two morning speeches by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and Netanyahu, in which both gave reassurances of the close U.S.-Israel alliance and more or less avoided discussing the disagreements underlying recent fissures in relations between the two governments, particularly between Obama and Netanyahu.

After Rice’s speech, which appeared to both shock and enliven much of the crowd, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), perhaps Israel’s leading supporter among Senate Democrats, took the stage, almost immediately taking a shot at Rice.

“I must disagree with those who say the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States is destructive to U.S.-Israel relations,” Menendez said.Tomorrow I will be proud when I escort the Prime Minister to the House chamber to give his speech.”

Coming just minutes after Rice’s remarks, the crowd gave Menendez a rousing applause, this time as a sign of adoration.

“I am not intimidated by anyone,” Menendez said. “Not Israel’s political enemies and not my political friends.”

He slammed Rice’s remark that the White House wants to keep Iran’s “breakout capacity” – the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon – at one year.

“It is not a good deal if it leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state,” Menendez said. “If we have no more than a year to respond, it’s not enough time for us to do anything other than exercise a military option.”

By the end of Menendez’s speech, the crowd’s applause sounded at least as loud as the one it gave Netanyahu after his address Monday morning, a speech that – combined with Samantha Power’s – gave the impression that there’s less tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship, or at least the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, than reports have suggested.

Netanyahu spent about half of his 20-minute speech Monday morning reassuring the reported 16,000 AIPAC delegates in attendance that America and Israel are “mishpucha” (Yiddish for “family”), that he wants Israel to remain a bipartisan issue, and that he “regrets” that his address to Congress has been “misperceived” as a partisan and political tactic.

“You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of U.S.-Israeli relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong,” Netanyahu said. “Our alliance is stronger than ever.”

He publicly thanked President Obama for U.S. military aid, intelligence sharing and reliable and friendly votes in the U.N., and described what is not the purpose of his Tuesday speech before he discussed what is the purpose.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu said. “I have great respect for both.”

But, he added, the nuclear deal that is coming into focus as the ostensible March 24 deadline approaches is one that, in its current form, may “threaten the survival of Israel.”

“We have a voice. I plan to use that voice,” Netanyahu said. “I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that is devouring country after country in the Middle East, that is exporting terror throughout the world and is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons – lots of them”

Netanyahu spoke shortly after an address by Power, who was the first White House official to speak at this year’s conference, and who was greeted warmly by the crowd.

AIPAC’s apparent concern, though, that some delegates would react hostilely to Power – as a representative of an administration perceived by many here as antagonistic to Israel’s security interests – was made clear by a slide that flashed on the wall of Casper the Friendly Ghost that read: “Don’t boo! Be friendly.” And before Power took the stage, a line from a presentation video reminded the crowd “to treat all of our speakers and fellow delegates as guests in our home.”

The American ambassador, like Netanyahu, reaffirmed America’s alliance with Israel and said that debate amongst allies on how to prevent Iran from going nuclear “is a necessary part of arriving at informed decisions – politicizing that process is not.”

“The stakes are too high for that,” Power said, all but certainly alluding to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s controversial invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress about the Iranian negotiations, and Netanyahu’s acceptance.

With the presumed architect of the Boehner-Netanyahu invitation – Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer – sitting a few feet from the podium, Israel’s leader said the “last thing” he or anyone who supports Israel would want “is for Israel to become a partisan issue.”

“I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that,” Netanyahu said.

Although some of AIPAC’s leadership was reportedly upset over Netanyahu’s handling of the impending Tuesday speech, neither they nor the audience expressed their annoyance publically Monday. After AIPAC president Bob Cohen announced Netanyahu, the crowd gave him a rousing minute-plus standing ovation as he walked to the podium. And when Netanyahu publicly thanked Dermer, the crowd again stood and cheered as he appeared on the multiple large screens set up around the hall.

The difference between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Netanyahu said, is just the most recent one in a decades long friendship that has survived numerous disputes.

“Despite occasional disagreements the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger decade after decade,” he said. “Our friendship will weather the current disagreement.”

Mar. 2, 11:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with more details.

Obama, Netanyahu clash over Iran diplomacy

United States President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed over Iran nuclear diplomacy on Monday on the eve of Bibi’s hotly disputed address to Congress, underscoring the severity of U.S.-Israeli strains over the issue.

Even as the two leaders professed their commitment to a strong partnership and sought to play down the diplomatic row, they delivered dueling messages – Netanyahu in a speech to pro-Israeli supporters and Obama in an interview with Reuters – that hammered home their differences on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Neither gave any ground ahead of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday when he plans to detail his objections to ongoing talks between Iran and world powers that he says will inevitably allow Tehran to become a nuclear-armed state.

Netanyahu opened his high-profile visit to Washington on Monday with a stark warning to the Obama administration that the deal being negotiated with Tehran could threaten Israel’s survival, saying he had a “moral obligation” to sound the alarm about the dangers.

He insisted he meant no disrespect for Obama, with whom he has a history of testy encounters, and appreciated U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. 

Just hours after Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC, the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, Obama told Reuters that Iran should commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on its most sensitive nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be reached. But with negotiators facing an end-of-March deadline for a framework accord, he said the odds were still against sealing a final agreement.

The Reuters interview gave Obama a chance to try to preemptively blunt the impact of Netanyahu’s closely watched address to Congress.

Previewing his coming appearance on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu told a cheering audience at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them.”

At the same time, Netanyahu said the relationship between his country and the United States was “stronger than ever” and not in crisis.


Obama also sought to lower the temperature by describing Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress as a distraction that would not be “permanently destructive” to U.S.-Israeli ties and by saying the rift was not personal.

Obama refused to meet Netanyahu during the visit, on the grounds that doing so could be seen as interference on the cusp of Israel’s March 17 elections when the prime minister is seeking re-election against a tough center-left challenger. On Monday, the president said he would be willing to meet Netanyahu if the Israeli leader wins re-election.

But he said Netanyahu's U.S. visit gave the impression of “politicizing” the two countries’ normally close partnership and of going outside the normal channels of U.S. foreign policy in which the president holds greatest sway. Netanyahu's planned speech has driven a wedge between Israel and congressional Democrats. Forty two of them plan to boycott the address, according to The Hill, a political newspaper.

Netanyahu, who was given rousing bipartisan welcomes in his two previous addresses to Congress, is expected to press U.S. lawmakers to block a deal with Iran that he contends would endanger Israel’s existence but which Obama’s aides believe could be a signature foreign policy achievement.

The invitation to Netanyahu was orchestrated by Republican congressional leaders with the Israeli ambassador without advance word to the White House, a breach of protocol that infuriated the Obama administration and the president's fellow Democrats.

The partisan nature of this dispute has turned it into the worst rift in decades between the United States and Israel, which normally navigates carefully between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Netanyahu wants Iran to be completely barred from enriching uranium, which puts him at odds with Obama's view that a deal should allow Tehran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes but under close international inspection.

Obama said a final deal must create a one-year “breakout period” for Iran, which means it would take at least a year for Tehran to get a nuclear weapon if it decides to develop one, thereby giving time for military action to prevent it.

Netanyahu has said such a deal would allow Iran to become a “threshold” nuclear weapons state, that it would inevitably cheat on any agreement and that the lifting of nuclear restrictions in as little of 10 years would be an untenable risk to Israel. He has hinted at the prospect for Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities as a last resort, though he made no such threat in his AIPAC speech on Monday.

AIPAC wants to talk Iran, but it can’t get away from speechgate

For all its focus on Iran, AIPAC can’t seem to get away from the controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impending speech to Congress.

Speaking to attendees Sunday at the launch of the largest-ever annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, CEO Howard Kohr acknowledged the elephant in the room head on.

“There’s no question that the way this speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats,” Kohr said.

“It frankly may have upset people in this room,” he said. “All of us should be concerned [who] care about the bipartisan nature of the relationship.”

The notion that anyone attending an event for America’s premiere pro-Israel lobby might be unhappy with the sitting Israeli prime minister has not haunted the organization since the early 1990s, when it suffered the opprobrium of the late Yitzhak Rabin, who thought AIPAC overly aggressive in its tactics.

Netanyahu arranged his speech with Republican leaders in Congress while agreeing to keep it a secret from the White House, congressional Democrats and the pro-Israel community, including AIPAC, until just before it was announced.

Netanyahu’s defenders have said his maneuvering and the decision to go ahead with the speech are necessary because Netanyahu needs the widest possible audience for his message – that the Iran nuclear talks underway are headed for catastrophic results that could leave Iran a nuclear weapons threshold state.

In his own speech to AIPAC on Monday morning, Netanyahu expressed few regrets for going ahead as planned with his controversial speech to Congress.

“I deeply appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel: security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the United Nations,” Netanyahu said in remarks that drew multiple standing ovations. “I am deeply grateful for this support and so should you be.”

However, he said his differences with the Obama administration over the course of Iran nuclear talks were too important not to take up the offer to speak to Congress.

“I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them,” he said.

Netanyahu said he regretted that the speech had been “misperceived” as partisan and said bipartisan support for Israel was critical.

“Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue,” he said.

AIPAC had wanted to use the conference and its massive lobbying finale to shore up support for the Iran bills among Democrats.

Yet Netanyahu’s speech kept getting in the way. Nearly half of American voters believe that Republican lawmakers should not have invited Israel’s prime minister to speak to Congress without first notifying Obama, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found. Some 48 percent of voters polled said that the president should have been consulted and 30 percent said they believed the invitation proffered by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was appropriate.

Kohr himself did not criticize Netanyahu, and emphasized that AIPAC is encouraging lawmakers to attend the speech on Tuesday, but his acknowledgment of the legitimacy of being upset about the address cast a shadow over a conference that is focused on increasing congressional influence on the Iran talks.

AIPAC’s legislative agenda, which in past years has featured an Iran component along with components on the Middle East peace and the U.S.-Israel alliance, this year focuses only on Iran.

“While we will continue to lobby on many important issues to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, on Tuesday we will encourage Congress to take immediate action on just one: stopping Iran,” Brad Gordon, AIPAC’s legislative director, told the conference.

On Tuesday, the last day of the conference, many of the 16,000 activists attending the conference will visit Capitol Hill to promote two bills and a letter related to the Iran nuclear talks.

The activists will seek cosponsors for a Senate bill that would add sanctions should Iran walk away from the talks. But they will not press for a vote, deferring to Democrats who back the bill but want to wait out a March 24 deadline for an Iran nuclear deal.

The activists also will seek support for a new Senate bill that would subject any agreement with Iran to congressional approval. Both bills have bipartisan support, although Obama has said he will veto both of them.

Finally, they will ask members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign a letter initiated by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), its ranking Democrat, urging the president to subject any Iran deal to congressional evaluation.

AIPAC leaders also marked a subtle difference between their approach and that of Netanyahu, who has suggested that the talks are inherently flawed. AIPAC instead wants to increase congressional oversight of the process.

“The ability to look at this to submit it for approval or disapproval is a critical role for Congress to play,” Kohr said. Attempts to depict endorsement of the talks as all or nothing — a peaceful resolution or war — were an attempt to silence those who wanted to help shape the direction of the talks, he added.

Kohr did not name the parties who accused critics of the talks as leading the United States to war, but administration officials have cast the talks in such either-or terms.

“It’s meant to silence critics, and we will not be silent,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers, as Kohr noted, have expressed their discomfiture with how Netanyahu’s speech was organized, and on Sunday for the first time that unease seemed to extend to a Republican lawmaker.

Asked his view on the speech, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a sponsor of the bill that would require congressional review of an Iran deal, referred to Netanyahu as a “politician” and said he preferred hearing from AIPAC activists.

“I will listen to him and then I’ll decide what’s good for America,” Graham pointedly said, emphasizing Netanyahu’s status as a foreign leader, during a panel discussion on Monday morning with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

“To my AIPAC friends, you’re going to make more difference than any speech that any politician can make,” Graham said. And if that weren’t clear enough, the South Carolina senator said that given the choice between Netanyahu and the AIPAC conferees coming to Washington – although no one had asked him to make such a choice – he preferred AIPAC.

“I would pick the AIPAC members to be in Washington,” he said.

The activists appeared to understand the distinction that Graham was making between Netanyahu and AIPAC. For an audience that usually roars its approval at flattery, it delivered tepid applause.

Indeed, the rank and file seemed enthused about Netanyahu’s speech – the mere mention of it during the first session, by a moderator, evinced roaring applause.

Also scheduled to speak Monday are Susan Rice, the national security adviser, who last week said Netanyahu’s speech was “destructive of the fabric” of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Netanyahu: Call off the Congress play

Liberal Democrats are the soft underbelly of American support for Israel, and John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu just gave them a swift kick.

When the Republican speaker of the house went around President Barack Obama to issue an invitation to the prime minister of Israel to address Congress, which Netanyahu accepted, you could practically hear the chorus of WTFs from the silent majority of the American-Jewish community.

Despite explanations to the contrary, this is not about the Iranian nuclear program or sanctions. We all want the former to fail and the latter to succeed; that’s a given.  

But when in our madness we are reckless in our means, that slow sucking sound you hear is bipartisan American support for Israel going down the drain. If Netanyahu thinks American support for Israel can survive solely on Evangelicals’ votes and Sheldon Adelson’s wallet, he’s been away too long from Cambridge.

I spoke with AIPAC supporters from both sides of the aisle this week, and while they disagreed on the severity of Bibi’s move, they agreed that bipartisan support is the bedrock of the American-Israeli alliance.

“It’s not helpful for a foreign leader to come right before election,” Larry Hochberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist who leans Republican, told me by phone. “We still love this country. We belong here. Americans don’t like any affront to our leader. I don’t think it’s a diplomatic coup for Israel; I really don’t.”

Hochberg was quick to give the benefit of the doubt to Bibi. Perhaps his message is so important, Hochberg said, he just had to take it directly to Congress, and U.S.-Israel relations have survived worse crises. But, still, the “how” is of concern.

“It falls a little down party lines,” Hochberg said. “Those in the middle don’t like to see their president embarrassed, and the president has a right to conduct foreign policy.”

Bipartisan support, including “those in the middle,” bloomed in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, but it has long been wilting. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey taken during the last war with Hamas found that “the share of Republicans who sympathize more with Israel has risen from 68 percent to 73 percent; 44 percent of Democrats express more sympathy for Israel than [for] the Palestinians, which is largely unchanged from April (46 percent).”

But the gaps widened when pollsters plugged in political preferences. Among Republicans, 77 percent of conservative Republicans favor Israel. Among Democrats, only 39 percent of liberal Democrats do.

As I’ve written before, among the next generations, the ones that didn’t experience the Six-Day War, the Holocaust, Osirak and Entebbe — these gaps are even wider. A generation of American college students is being subjected to the one-two punch of a cynical, well-funded Arab propaganda campaign against Israel, coupled with Bibi’s disdain of the president they helped elect.

There are no polls out yet on Americans’ opinion of Bibi’s plans for a March 3 speech to Congress. But you know it’s playing badly among Israel’s shakier supporters here when even the country’s stalwart fans are upset.

 “If you talk to AIPAC, they will tell you they were not consulted and not involved,” Greg Rosenbaum told me. “They were blindsided as much as anybody else was.”

Rosenbaum is an uber-successful investor (and former CEO of Empire Kosher) who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council. So you can write him off as a Boehner-hater, or pine for the old days when the pro-Israel tent gathered him and his Republican counterparts together.

“AIPAC is firmly committed to the proposition that support for U.S.-Israel relations must be bi-partisan,” Rosenbaum told me. “This would be considered an affront. It is perceived as a way to get at Obama.”

The irony here is that AIPAC is widely being blamed for dissing Democrats when, in reality, according to Rosenbaum and Hochberg, AIPAC was out of this decision loop.

Some reports have placed blame on American-born Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who is generally perceived as leaning Republican. Several people have told me they saw him at the White House Chanukah party last December, waiting in line with every Joe Rabbi and Jane Fundraiser — civilians! — to get in. Perhaps he engineered this diplomatic reach around as a way of cutting the line.

Or maybe it was just a bad call — like, say, a pass in the last few seconds of a Super Bowl game when you’re less than 1 yard from the goal. It seemed like a good idea beforehand. But almost immediately, you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made.

Let’s assume that’s the case. (The alternative is too awful to ponder — that Republicans have some scheme to “win” on Israel, and thus capture pro-Israel dollars at the expense of broader American support.)

“Even smart people and smart politicians occasionally make miscalculations,” Rosenbaum told me. “The best figure out how to get away from them as soon as the negative impact is seen.”

Calling back this play will be hard now that partisan forces have lined up on both sides to defend and attack it. But that ugly thrum of partisanship, which will only grow louder as March 3 approaches, is exactly why Bibi, Boehner and Dermer need to figure out a way to keep most Americans on Israel’s side — in this conflict and the next.

Read David Suissa's counter-point here:
Why Bibi should give his speech

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

AIPAC holds fire as Iran deadline looms

As the United States and other powers negotiate down to the wire on a nuclear deal with Iran, one voice has been unusually quiet – the main pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Israel deeply distrusts the attempt to reach a deal at talks in Vienna that would lift harsh international sanctions on Iran in return for limits to its nuclear program, aimed at preventing it from developing an atomic bomb.

But its staunchest U.S. supporters, represented by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, lobbying group, have been holding back. They failed earlier this year in a full-scale push for further sanctions that the White House said would have derailed the talks.

With growing signs that Monday's deadline for an Iran deal may be extended, AIPAC is looking past these talks and weighing how to respond to the outcome amid a changing political environment in Washington.

“There's nothing to lobby for … until we see what's addressed in Vienna,” said a source close to AIPAC. “But after that, the question is whether you'll see an intense push to engage with Congress. It could be the lull before the storm.”

A Republican sweep in this month's U.S. congressional elections has already spurred new threats from hawkish lawmakers to seek further sanctions against Iran.

AIPAC is likely to find the Republican-led Congress that takes office in January more receptive to tougher measures against Tehran and President Barack Obama less likely to have the votes to sustain a veto against fresh sanctions.

In February, Obama was able to block a campaign backed by AIPAC to get Congress to impose new sanctions, marking the group's biggest political defeat in years.


AIPAC, which has about 100,000 members, is widely credited with helping to ensure that Israel remains a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid and is accustomed to seeing most congressional measures it favors pass almost unopposed.

This summer it helped engineer a $225 million funding increase for Israel's Iron Dome defense system to protect against Hamas cross-border rocket fire in the Gaza war.

But the group has kept its army of lobbyists largely on the sidelines during the current Iran talks, a dramatic shift from other times, when it blanketed Congress.

At the same time, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has toned down once-vociferous criticism of Obama's handling of Iran diplomacy, though it remains bitterly opposed to any concessions that would not strip Tehran of all uranium enrichment capability.

The low-key approach may reflect a desire to avoid further antagonizing the U.S. government, Israel's most important ally, at a time of strained relations.

AIPAC is also struggling with internal divisions over what some critics see as a tilt toward the Republican party by the group, which could jeopardize its bipartisan principles.

An AIPAC source dismissed this concern, saying: “Everything we do, we approach in a bipartisan fashion.”


If Washington agrees to another extension with Iran, AIPAC and Israel's friends in Congress will face a decision whether to give diplomacy more time or seek new sanctions. Obama has previously insisted that more sanctions would antagonize Iran and collapse the negotiations.

When the talks were extended in July, AIPAC said the United States should “make clear that Iran can expect no further extension.” But officials close to the talks said a new deadline could be set, perhaps in March.

AIPAC has not said how it would respond, but a pro-Israel source said the group's earlier concerns, principally that Iran is trying to buy time for its nuclear advances, “would still apply, even more so.”

Even as it has held fire, AIPAC has maintained lines of communication with lawmakers and the administration on the negotiations.

The West and Israel accuse Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, which it denies. Israel, which sees development of an Iranian bomb as an existential threat, is believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state.

Like AIPAC, Israeli officials have kept a lower-than-usual profile in Washington during the recent talks, possibly seeking to avoid the impression of meddling in U.S. affairs.

“We are not doing any lobbying at this time,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters in Jerusalem.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau and Parisa Hafezi in Vienna; Editing by David Storey and Dan Grebler

Has Israel become a Democrat-Republican issue?

About a decade ago, my rabbi was promoting congregational AIPAC involvement.  His argument went that AIPAC was not necessary for our local liberal Jewish Congressman, who was a member of our synagogue.  If he ever did anything anti-Israel, the rabbi always had the option of reporting that fact to the Congressman’s mother.  However, he stated that AIPAC was necessary to make Israel’s case to the Congressman from northeast Louisiana, in other words, the Congressman for the folks from Duck Dynasty.  Ten years later, it seems that the pro Israel lobby needs to change its focus from the Congressman in northeast Louisiana to the one south-central Los Angeles.

In a recent CNN/ORC survey taken from July 18 to July 20, 2014, Americans had a favorable view of Israel, 60%-36%, which would appear promising.  When the data is broken down, there is some cause for concern.  Republicans viewed Israel favorably by a margin of 67%-31% and Independents 63%-35%.  Democrats, however, only viewed Israel favorably by a margin of 49%-48%.  In asking about the justification for Operation Protective Edge, Republicans viewed Israel as justified by a margin of 73%-19%, Independents 56%-36% and Democrats 45%-42%.  Looking at the data, Republicans and Independents are strong supporters of Israel; Democrats not so much.  The trend is alarming.  The key question is why?  What has happened to cause the gradual movement of Democrats from the pro-Israel camp?  There are of course, notable Democrats strongly supportive of Israel from Chuck Schumer to Alan Dershowitz, but if they are not the minority within their own party, they may well soon be. 

I have come up with four reasons to explain the polling data.  The first is moral relativism.  Since World War II, Democrats have never been comfortable in framing issues as good vs. evil.  They had trouble with the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire or George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil.  The fact that there would no need for Operation Protective Edge if Hamas did not fire thousands of rockets into Israel in an attempt (albeit ineffective) to murder as many innocent Jews as possible seems to be lost on certain Democrats.  To frame the issue as Hamas = evil and Israel = good is not a major intellectual breakthrough.  You just need to have a moral compass that finds indiscriminate murder as evil.  Democrats have no problem labeling Republican domestic policies as immoral, such as with the war on women, but their morality seems to go astray as soon as it is applied to the international arena.

The second reason is President Barack Obama.  As the ostensible leader of the Party, the President’s opinions on Israel matter a great deal.  Despite Republican claims to the contrary, Obama is not inherently anti-Israel.  He has approved Iron Dome funding and presided over unprecedented levels of security cooperation between the United States and Israel.  On the other hand, the President is not instinctively pro-Israel either.  One only has to look at his administration’s recent involvement in the cease fire negotiations regarding Operation Protective Edge, which the Israeli security cabinet described as a “betrayal.”  This is not a new issue for the President; Obama has been dogged since he first ran for President about whether he is supportive for Israel in his gut; i.e., the kishkes test.

The third reason is what I call the “Jimmy Carter” issue.  This issue stems from the Democrats being hardwired to support the underdog.  In that framework, all they see is a powerful western colonial Israel oppressing an indigenous third world Palestine.  However in framing the issue as such, Caterites consistently fail to understand the history of the conflict, how the United Nations voted to partition what was then Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab one, how the partition resolution was accepted by the Jewish community and rejected by the Arabs, who then assembled the armies of five nations to launch a war with the avowed aim of driving the Jews out of Palestine.  The fact that they failed is now described as the “Nakba” or catastrophe.  Carter sees this issue in terms of South African apartheid, which is evident by his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”  Despite Carter’s support for Hamas and his being absolutely and completely wrong about Israel, there appears to be an audience for him within the confines of the Democrat party.

The fourth reason is Jewish Democrats themselves.  J Street is a lobbying group that portrays itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.”  What they have done successfully is peel off liberal Jews from AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations.  You can find Israelis with views similar to J Street; you would not even call them hard left.  The difference is that J Street uses its influence on US policy towards Israel, while Israeli leftists, whose children serve in the IDF, use their influence on the democratically elected government of Israel, who is responsible for the safety and well-being of its citizens.  There is debate within the Jewish community about the “Pro-Israel” component of J Street, but you cannot debate that J Street has made it acceptable within the Jewish community to lobby the United States government to apply pressure on Israel.  It is not a giant step to conclude that they have not done as good job within the liberal community of making the case for Israel as they have in making the case for pressuring Israel.

How can we change the Democrats outlook towards Israel?  The data does not say that they are anti-Israel, but the trend is worth noting.