In an unsettling reminder of a besieged Israel, more than 2,000 delegates to this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference met in a downtown Washington hotel transformed into a heavily fortified enclave.
Inside, the mood was unprecedented unity and commitment to the pro-Israel cause; the surge of anti-Semitic violence in Europe and the strong electoral showing by French ultra-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen provided an ominous undertone.
Outside, an unlikely and volatile coalition of protestors shouted at arriving dignitaries and carried signs comparing Israel to Nazis and suggesting their hopes for the future of the Jewish state: “Ban Israel.”
Despite the gauntlet outside the Washington Hilton, more than half the Senate and nearly 100 House members attended some of the conference, along with a number
of administration officials and foreign diplomats in a show of strength that has become routine for the pro-Israel lobby. It had special resonance this year.
Officials estimated that police officers outnumbered anti-Israel protestors. The rally was organized by Palestinian and Muslim groups, but they were joined by at least as many anti-globalism activists who were in town to demonstrate at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, opponents of U.S. aid to Colombia and members of “anarchist” collectives.
That convergence worries Jewish leaders.
“The old left, the anti-globalization people and others are coalescing around the issue of the Palestinians,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the AIPAC conference.
“These movements were going nowhere. They needed a cause to rally around, and the Palestinians are providing it.” Foxman said the convergence is going to keep groups like AIPAC and the ADL “very busy.”
A group of protestors assembled in Dupont Circle, a few blocks south of the hotel, instructing each other on how to turn their kaffiyehs into face masks in the fashion of Palestinian gunmen. Others came wearing cardboard costumes representing Israeli tanks and bulldozers.
The coalition march was billed as a peace demonstration, but there were abundant T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Jihad” and images of assault rifles.
Inside the hotel, AIPAC officials urgently tried to keep conference participants from confronting protestors.
“If you go out there and shout, it’s the only thing the media will focus on, not the very important message we’re getting inside this hotel,” shouted an angry AIPAC official at a group of students who were preparing to hit the streets.
Despite several small shouting matches, most delegates complied.
Pols Express Support
Among AIPAC delegates, the crisis mood was palpable. For the first time in years, the conference was oversold, with an unprecedented number of first-timers — over 50 percent of the delegates, according to a spokesperson for the group.
All was not perfect for conference planners. Most recent policy conferences have featured the president, the vice president or another top foreign or defense policy official. This year, the White House refused to send anyone of that stature.
Washington sources say the administration wanted to convey a message to the Jewish community that it was unhappy with the widespread booing that greeted deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz at the big pro-Israel rally, when he referred to Palestinian “suffering.”
The top administration speaker was White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who reassured the Monday night throng that the “United States and Israel may not always agree, but our differences are the differences of true friends who respect each other … friends whose affection for one another is genuine and unshakable.”
The AIPAC audience, more sophisticated than the huge rally crowd, listened politely when Card referred to the administration’s goal of “two states, side by side, living in security and peace.” But Card was enthusiastically cheered when he said that “a strong, stable U.S.-Israel relationship is the foundation of peace in the Middle East.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, addressing the group Sunday, faced a few scattered hecklers when he explained the reasons for his offer at Camp David in 2000 — but received strong overall applause for a mostly hawkish speech.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — perhaps responding to a flurry of partisan attacks accusing Democrats of abandoning Israel — said that America’s commitment to Israel “must be unshakable…As long as I am majority leader of the United States Senate, we will be a friend to Israel in fair weather and in foul.”
House Majority Whip Tom Delay, in lines that were not in his prepared text, reflected the Israeli nationalist perspective.
“I’ve been to Masada, I’ve toured Judea and Samaria, I’ve walked the streets of Jerusalem and I’ve stood on the Golan Heights,” he said. “And when I looked out I didn’t see occupied territory, I saw Israel.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking by satellite hookup, opened with this uncharacteristic understatement: “The world has changed since last year’s AIPAC Policy Conference.” Sharon strongly endorsed proposals for an international peace conference to deal with rising Mideast violence, an idea the Israeli government and AIPAC vehemently opposed for many years.
“A regional peace conference, sponsored by the United States, can create the framework …to bring about a cessation of hostilities,” he said. “It can foster a coalition of countries committed to peace and able to contain the forces of terrorism and evil threatening our lives.”
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Sharon’s primary political rival, but also his special hasbara envoy—electrified the crowd with his demand that Arafat, like Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, should be removed from power.
“Get rid of Arafat and get rid of that regime,” he told a convention characterized by militancy as well as unity. “As long as he is there, terrorism will not stop. Hussein and Arafat have to go. Militant Islam is more of a threat than communism.”
AIPAC Roll Call
For AIPACers, the Monday night “roll call” is always a highlight. That’s when the politicians who make the yearly pilgrimage are acknowledged in a public show of raw political muscle.
This year’s headcount pointed to a lobby that’s as well connected in Washington as ever.
The strongest applause went to congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Majority Leader Daschle.
Strong ovations went to old favorites like Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) as well as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
New York’s senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer missed the dinner, although both were scheduled to meet with AIPACers on Tuesday.
But the applause for lawmakers was dwarfed by the spontaneous standing ovation when Jafar Hassan, the deputy chief of mission at the Jordanian embassy, was recognized.
Also in attendance: top envoys from 25 other countries. Conspicuously absent: envoys from major Western European nations.
The meeting marked the official debut of San Franciscan Amy Friedken as AIPAC’s new president. Friedken is the first woman to hold that post.
AIPAC Endorses Arctic
Drilling — Sort Of
The administration’s hopes for an energy bill, including provisions opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, may be on hold after last week’s Senate defeat, but the pro-Israel lobby has taken a step toward supporting the controversial proposal.
At the AIPAC policy conference, members of the group’s executive committee voted for an amendment to the annual “action agenda” that would provide at least indirect support for ANWR drilling, a change from AIPAC’s official bystander status in the emotional debate.
The group voted for a resolution calling for steps to reduce dependence on Middle East oil, including “improving energy efficiency, developing alternatives such as solar and renewable sources and, where supported by local congressional delegation, increasing domestic production.”
That last phrase was interpreted as a backdoor path to support ANWR drilling. Alaska’s single congressman and two senators are among its strongest backers, while environmental groups have fiercely opposed the proposal.
The AIPAC move angered Jewish leaders on the other side of the debate.
If the resolution results in AIPAC lobbying for a renewed ANWR push by the administration, “It will be harmful to Israel’s interests, and enormously divisive in the American Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a group that strongly opposes ANWR drilling.
ANWR drilling, he said, “will do not one thing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; focusing on ANWR will just distract us from the things we can do that will really make a difference.”
The AIPAC delegates “did not engage in a really comprehensive debate about ANWR,” said Mark Jacobs, executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). “They were told some other Jewish organizations support drilling, so why not AIPAC? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about the exact position of some groups in our community.”
B’nai B’rith, the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs support drilling. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations remains officially neutral, although some of its leaders have lent their names to the ANWR cause.
On Middle East matters, the AIPAC delegates eschewed the usual acrimonious debates. This year, there was no organized challenge from the peace camp.
A resolution offered by the Zionist Organization of America supporting the “right of Jews to live in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan Heights” was easily defeated; another ZOA resolution “urging the administration to stop using the inappropriate and inaccurate term ‘occupied territories’ and begin referring to those areas as ‘disputed territories’ ” carried