By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
How much clout does AIPAC have?
Well, consider that during the pro-Israel lobby's annual conference yesterday, a fleet of police cars, sirens wailing, blocked intersections and formed a motorcade to escort buses carrying its conventioneers -- to lunch.
The annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has long produced a massive show of bipartisan pandering, as lawmakers praise the well-financed and well-connected group. But this has been a rough year for AIPAC -- it has dismissed its policy director and another employee while the FBI examines whether they passed classified U.S. information to Israel -- and the organization is eager to show how big it is.
Reporters arriving at the convention center yesterday were given a list of "Food Facts" for the three-day AIPAC meeting: 26,000 kosher meals, 32,640 hors d'oeuvres, 2,500 pounds of salmon, 1,200 pounds of turkey, 900 pounds of chicken, 700 pounds of beef and 125 gallons of hummus.
Another fact sheet announced that this is the "largest ever" conference, with its 5,000 participants attending "the largest annual seated dinner in Washington" joined by "more members of Congress than almost any other event, except for a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union address." The group added that its membership "has nearly doubled" over four years to 100,000 and that the National Journal calls it "one of the top four most effective lobbying organizations."
"More," "most," "largest," "top": The superlatives continued, and deliberately. In his speech Sunday, the group's executive director, Howard Kohr, said the "record attendance" at the conference would dispel questions about AIPAC raised by the FBI investigation.
"This is a test, a test of our collective resolve," Kohr said of the "unique challenge" presented by the FBI probe, "and your presence here today sends a message to every adversary of Israel, AIPAC and the Jewish community that we are here, and here to stay." (The official text has two exclamation points after that sentence.) Kohr, without mentioning the fired staffers, told participants that "neither AIPAC nor any of its current employees is or ever has been the target."
As yesterday's session showed, the scandal isn't keeping the powerful from lining up to woo AIPAC. The morning brought Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the evening brought congressional leaders, and at a luncheon "debate" in between, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and informal administration foreign policy adviser Richard N. Perle tried to one-up each other in pro-Israel views.
Perle drew cheers for denouncing Palestinian anti-Semitism and the French. Harman mentioned that an aide once worked for AIPAC, called her audience "very sophisticated" and celebrated Yasser Arafat's death as "a blessing." Debating a hard-liner in front of a pro-administration crowd, Harman heaped praise on President Bush, calling the Iraqi elections "sensationally impressive" and moving to "applaud" or "commend" Perle and the administration a dozen times. "Richard is right, and so is President Bush," she said at one point.
But after half an hour of this, Harman could not keep up. Perle provoked cheers from the crowd when he favored a military raid on Iran, saying that "if Iran is on the verge of a nuclear weapon, I think we will have no choice but to take decisive action." When Harman said the "best short-term option" is the U.N. Security Council, the crowd reacted with boos.
AIPAC is a demanding crowd, and even Rice, introduced as a "very special friend," did not satisfy universally. The participants applauded heartily her reminder that Bush did not meet with Arafat, but when she said Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, "is committed to both freedom and security," and when she mentioned more U.S. funds for Palestinians, the room was quiet.
Likewise, Rice's call for Arab states to "establish normal relations with Israel" earned an extended ovation; her reminder that Israel must not "jeopardize the true viability of the Palestinian state" did not.
There were subtle signs of dissent within AIPAC (a sticker critical of Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza, a policy supported by AIPAC) and not-so-subtle dissent from without: a group of anti-Zionist orthodox Jews with signs proclaiming, "Torah Forbids any Jewish State." But the attendees overall showed an impressive ideological discipline -- right down to AIPAC's multimedia show, "Iran's Path to the Bomb," in the convention center's basement.
The exhibit, worthy of a theme park, begins with a narrator condemning the International Atomic Energy Agency for being "unwilling to conclude that Iran is developing nuclear weapons" (it had similar reservations about Iraq) and the Security Council because it "has yet to take up the issue." In a succession of rooms, visitors see flashing lights and hear rumbling sounds as Dr. Seuss-like contraptions make yellowcake uranium, reprocess plutonium, and pop out nuclear warheads like so many gallons of hummus for an AIPAC conference.