Monday morning marks the formal opening of the annual three-day policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which, according to AIPAC’s press announcement of the event, is “consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill.” You can expect a strong focus on Iran and a very hawkish line towards same. The press release makes the point that “ALL three remaining Presidential candidates, ALL four leaders of Congress… AS WELL AS Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will address the conference. (Emphasis in the original.) So much for the argument that AIPAC really isn’t as powerful as its critics, like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, claim.
While all major Jewish organizations, including the more peace-oriented ones like Americans for Peace Now and the Israeli Policy Forum, are represented on AIPAC’s board, the actual line-up of speakers, particularly in the “breakout sessions” on specific issues, is very narrow, ranging (in Israeli terms) from the far right (as in pro-settler), to the center-right governing Kadima Party. Thus, it’s notable that the highest-ranking Labor Party member (as listed in the program) is former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, who actually resigned from the Labor Party last week to form his own group that is expected to soon join Kadima. Sneh, it should be noted, strongly favors concessions for the Palestinian Authority led by Abu Mazen, but he is strongly anti-Hamas and considers Iran an existential threat. The U.S. spectrum is also remarkably narrow; on the “left” are former Clinton officials Daniel Benjamin (speaking on how to reach “moderate Muslims” on a panel that includes two serious extremists, Martin Kramer of the Adelson Institute at the Shalem Center, and Walid Phares, the former Phalangist who is now based at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD) and that perennial, Dennis Ross. Ross will be speaking along with Sneh, Liz Cheney(!), and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (who could have some interesting things to say) in the opening plenary session after an introductory speech by Sen. John McCain. Those in the U.S. Jewish community who favor some form of engagement — direct or indirect — with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran will simply not be represented on the podium and will have to satisfy themselves, I suppose, with asking questions from the floor.
Much attention, as in the past several years, will be devoted to Iran, which dominates the list of lobbying priorities (“taking action”) cited on AIPAC’s home page. A panel on financial sanctions against Iran will be monopolized by individuals who strongly favor them; same with another panel on divestment; and a third panel on “what does Iran really want?” will feature two Iran hawks, Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, and Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), as well as a former adviser to the Israeli prime minister (although I don’t know which one). This group believes a lot more in sticks than in carrots.
The session on Syria looks to be even more hawkish. In addition to New York Rep. Eliot Engel, presenters include Tony Badran, a regime-changer at FDD, and WINEP’s David Schenker, who spent much of Bush’s first term in Donald Rumsfeld’s office working with Elliot Abrams at the White House and Scooter Libby in Cheney’s office on ways to destabilize and/or attack Syria. The panel on Hamas and Hezbollah doesn’t look much better. Entitled “Double Trouble,” the presenters include an AIPAC official, Leah Odinec; Avi Jorisch, who used to be with FDD and now heads something called the Illicit Finance Group; and Bret Stephens, the pro-settler foreign affairs columnist at the Wall Street Journal.
Another panel, “Shifting Sands: The Changing Landscape of Today’s MIddle East,” is also dominated by hawks or, as described by the program, “three of America’s most renowned foreign policy experts.” They include former U.S. Amb. and to Morocco and bona fide FOB, Marc Ginsberg, who until recently was on FDD’s board of advisers; Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and WINEP’s executive director, Robert Satloff. Ginsberg will also be appearing opposite (if that’s the correct word) Bill Kristol on a panel entitled “The Presidential Situation Room: How Candidates Develop Their Foreign Policy.” Ginsberg is a frequent contributor to Kristol’s Weekly Standard.
For Islamophobes, “Terror in Our Backyard: The Reach of Radicals Operating in America” should be a big attraction. Steve Emerson of the Investigative Project and Jonathan Schanzer of the Jewish Policy Forum, a group whose board of directors includes Daniel Pipes and Michael Ledeen, will be the sole presenters.
Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu will also be presenting in plenary session of course. I’m betting we’re going to hear about how this is 1938, and Iran is Nazi Germany.
Sens. Clinton and Obama will open the final session Wednesday. It will be very interesting if Obama, in particular, restates before this crowd his remarks about the distinction between being ”pro-Israel” and being “pro-Likud,” or his sympathy for Palestinian suffering, or his belief that expanding settlements is not conducive to peace. The Israeli government’s decision to build nearly 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem this weekend certainly highlights the issue.
As of late morning, however, more than 5,000 anticipated AIPAC delegates will be let loose on Capitol Hill to tell their elected representatives about what they’ve learned in the previous two days, and engaging Israel’s enemies is not likely to be one of the lessons they’ll take with them.