Washington — If Iran was the issue that united delegates at this week’s annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby, Iraq proved the one that divided them when an American vice president and — more surprisingly — an Israeli prime minister pushed the issue.
In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Vice President Dick Cheney barely mentioned the nuclear threat from Iran, which otherwise dominated the lobby’s three-day conference. He dwelled instead at length on the danger the United States would face if it withdrew from Iraq.
Ominously for a group seeking the administration’s support for a tough stand toward Iran, Cheney said, “Friends owe it to friends to be as candid as possible. My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace that is posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”
Though Cheney got some applause for his Iraq lines, the war is an issue AIPAC has strenuously avoided taking a stand on. There are multiple reasons — among them the wish to offer no fodder to critics, such as University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, who already famously lambaste “the lobby” for having dragged the country into the unpopular war.
In fact, while some other Jewish groups and neoconservative Jewish policy advocates lobbied for the war, there is no evidence that AIPAC itself ever did so. Unlike Iran, AIPAC’s leaders did not see Iraq as a prime threat to Israel’s security. Also, from the start, Jewish public opinion has been substantially more opposed to the Iraq war than the population as a whole. A Gallup poll released last week found 77 percent of Jews opposed the war — by far the highest proportion of any religious group but for African-American Baptists, at 78 percent.
This made it even more shocking when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waded into the middle of the bitterly partisan divide to weigh in on the administration’s side.
Warning against “premature actions” by the United States in Iraq, Olmert told an AIPAC plenary via satellite, “When America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer. The friends of Israel know it, the friends who care about Israel know it. They will keep the Americans strong, powerful and convincing.”
It was a line that seemed design for the book Mearsheimer and Walt plan to publish this October, in which they are expected to expand on their argument that Israel and its supporters sought to push the United States into this war for Israel’s own interests.
AIPAC spokesman Josh Block could do little more than disavow any part in the debacle. “That’s not our issue,” he said curtly. “We want to make sure every possible measure is taken to increase pressure on Iran and that the Palestinians accept [the international community’s conditions] to end their isolation.”
But comments from Israel’s leader did not simply drop unheard at the pro-Israel conference. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke the next night about the Democrats’ push for legislation that would begin to limit the administration’s ability to send more troops to Iraq, a scattering of boos broke out right after an eruption of applause.
“It’s opened up the partisan divide within the group,” one congressional staffer said.