WASHINGTON – Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, Jew, Christian, black, white, Hispanic – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee wants all to feel welcome under its big, pro-Israel tent.
That was the resounding theme of this week’s annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.
Expansive outreach, of course, is nothing new for AIPAC. But in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.
“We must affirm bipartisanship in our own ranks if we want support for Israel to be championed by Democrats and Republicans alike,” Michael Kassen, AIPAC’s chairman, said at the conference’s outset on Sunday. “AIPAC’s political diversity is critical to our continued success.”
AIPAC in recent weeks has been bruised by deep differences between Republicans and most Democrats over how best to deal with Iran while nuclear talks are underway. Republicans back new sanctions as a means of strengthening the U.S. hand in the talks, and many congressional Democrats, heeding the White House, oppose them, saying they could scuttle not only talks with Iran but the international coalition that brought the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table.
AIPAC had been working to bring a new Iran sanctions bill to a Senate vote until backing down last month after it became clear that it lacked enough Democratic support to overcome a promised presidential veto. In the aftermath, Republicans were angry with AIPAC for backing away from its push for a vote, while congressional Democrats resented AIPAC’s pressure on them to break with President Obama on the issue.
The result has been an unusual vacuum for the lobby: The thousands of activists who headed to Capitol Hill Tuesday were not advocating for any new legislation. Instead they were seeking signatories for letters from lawmakers in both chambers asking Obama to make sure that Iran complies with the nuclear inspection and verification regimes mandated by the UN Security Council.
At the policy conference, AIPAC officials did not shy from tough talk when it came to Iran. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, focused his speech Sunday morning on countering the Obama administration arguments. He took aim particularly at Obama’s claim that new sanctions could upend the negotiations. “Pressure brought Iran to the table, and only increasing pressure could bring about a deal,” he said.
The Obama administration officials who addressed the conference anticipated the AIPAC pushback on Iran.
“Now, in the next two days or so, you may hear some say that the very narrow relief in the interim agreement has unraveled the sanctions regime or eased the chokehold on Iran’s economy,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told the conference. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Notwithstanding the lingering tensions, calls for comity were prevalent at the conference.
“It may make you sleep better at night” to criticize President Obama in meetings with lawmakers, Steve Askeroff, an AIPAC lobbyist, said at a lobbying training session, but he emphasized that AIPAC has to work with the executive branch. “It can be very tricky, but you have to navigate these waters in a bipartisan way,” he said.
In a closed meeting, AIPAC officials asked members of the group’s executive committee – an advisory body comprising representatives from other American Jewish groups – to break up any arguments they witnessed throughout the conference.
An emphasis of the conference was the breadth of AIPAC’s outreach, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics. Chris Harris, a pastor from Chicago’s South Side, described how he had applied in his neighborhood lessons learned from trauma specialists in Israeli communities on Gaza’s border.