A Report on AIPAC Policy Conference

I have just returned from the annual Policy Conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).  In addition to my wife, Joyce, there were other Temple members: Sally and Michael Kliegman, Pam and Ken Olson, Marlene and Elliott Siff, Barbara Vinograd, and Cheryl Hammer and Ken Mufson.  They can certainly speak to their own experiences, as I am sure they will.

To understand Policy Conference one must understand and appreciate AIPAC.  The organization’s focus is making sure the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong.  The focus is primarily on fostering strong relationships with members of Congress to make sure that there is continued support for America’s one true democratic ally in the Middle East. That’s it. There are many, many other issues concerning Israel, but there are other organizations that are engaged in those.

After spending three days in Washington with the 6800 delegates to the Policy Conference I can say without question that AIPAC’s single-minded approach works.  People of the left, right and middle; Reform , Conservative, Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews; 1300 students from more than 300 colleges (some of which have very few Jewish students); Jews and non-Jews—all came together to demonstrate that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in the best interests of both countries and that that relationship remains strong, despite events of recent weeks. At the banquet held on the last evening of the Policy Conference, more than half the members of Congress, government officials from both nations, and diplomats from many nations joined with the Conference delegates to celebrate the unique and vital U.S.-Israel relationship.  It was an absolutely amazing experience. For a moment, one could almost forget the tremendous challenges facing Israel.

During the first two days of the Conference there were hundreds of different workshops dealing with all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship, chances for peace, Israel as economic powerhouse, etc.  In addition, I was privileged to attend several sessions for rabbis, one of which featured Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader and leader of the Kadima party, the largest in the Israeli Knesset. Without being asked, she chose to speak about the importance of religious pluralism and the fact that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel are doing everything they can to impose their values on an entire state.  The result she said was that young people are being turned off to religion entirely, which is not good for them or the Jewish nature of the state. This was a courageous talk and greatly appreciated by those of us in the room who have been concerned about these issues.

Of course, the dominant issue during the Policy Conference was what appears to be a chilling of the warm relationship of Israel and the United States.  Many of the speakers we heard tried to portray recent events as a spat within the family. Things are certainly not that simple, as demonstrated by the speeches of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  The latter repeated what we heard throughout the conference—that Jerusalem is not a “settlement” and that Israel is merely building in what will always be part of a unified Jerusalem.  That is, while the timing of the announcement about this building project was poorly timed, this is simply a zoning matter and not a change in policy.  And, we were told, arguments between friends need to be in private. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton, while reiterating the strong and unbreakable bond between our two nations, explained that the objection to this building project went beyond an insult to Vice President Biden.  Rather, at the heart of the controversy is the American belief that building projects in East Jerusalem are not helpful at a time when the United States is trying to broker a peace and that both sides need to make offer steps that will convince the other side that peace is desired. I would say personally that I think there is a difference between “can” and “should.”  That is, Israel has made it clear that the areas in Jerusalem in which new projects are being built are part of Jerusalem.  And so, yes, Israel can build in those areas.  However, the question is whether Israel should build in those areas at a time when attempts are being made to once again get the parties to the negotiating table.

The other overriding theme of the Policy Conference was the very real threat that a nuclear Iran for Israel and the world. Lost in all the talk about health care reform are the bills before Congress calling on the United States to impose tough sanctions on Iran.   We were reminded that one of the primary lessons of the Holocaust was the need to take seriously the threats of genocide and annihilation.  Why wouldn’t we take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats seriously? Why do we suppose he is anything but serious when he threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the earth? And why would we ignore the fact that a nuclear Iran will force other Middle East countries to seek their own nuclear arms?  That is not the neighborhood in which Israel should be forced to live.

There is much to say about AIPAC’s policy conference. Witnessing 6800 activists marching on the offices of every member of Congress on Tuesday morning was a stark reminder of why we were in Washington. Israel has no other reliable ally other than the United States, and the strength of that alliance depends on the willingness of Congress to pass appropriation bills that provide the funds necessary to allow Israel to be a reliable ally in the Middle East and the willingness of Congress to pass bills that create the sanctions that will force Iran to reconsider its nuclear aims.  None of this would be possible without the work of AIPAC and its supporters.

Joyce and I have already registered for next year’s Policy Conference which will take place May 22-24, 2011.   As an incentive, AIPAC is offering a huge discount on registration fees until March 28, 2010.  It would be my pleasure to lead a huge group of Temple members to next year’s Conference. It will be an experience you will not forget.


2 Responses to “A Report on AIPAC Policy Conference”

  1. Michael Kliegman Says:

    I agree it was a great conference. A few further observations and suggestions. One, I suggest people go to http://www.aipac.org/PC2010/videos.asp to view videos of the various plenary session speeches and presentations. I’d especially recommend the March 21 Foreign Policy Roundtable moderated by Dan Senor, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr’s speech, and Alan Dershowitz’s speech. Lots more good ones, including March22 video entitled Israel’s Ethical Defense; speech by British Colonel Richard Kemp, who famously attested to the exemplary ethical standards of the IDF in the Gaza War.

    Yes, the flap going on between Israel and the White House over the Jerusalem building permits was certainly an unanticipated topic hanging over the room. I would differ from Rabbi’s characterization of the Obama-Clinton viewpoint on building in Jerusalem as the “American”belief; indeed, one thing we learned both from the various Congressional participants and from our lobbying visits is that Congress is generally far more supportive than the White House and State Department on both the building issue and more important, on the undesirability of publicly rebuking Israel. Also, I think that all of the speakers including Bibi, were careful not to say anything (e.g., Jerusalem shall be forever undivided) that would indicate that Jerusalem’s status was not open to negotiation.

    The fact is, as Senator Lieberman pointed out when we met with him, Jerusalem is a single city with a municipal government and complex bureaucracy trying to deal with the myriad matters that a major city has to deal with. There is growth throughout the city, as there is throughout the country, and nobody seriously doubts that Ramat Shlomo would remain with Israel in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

    Everyone should be aware that the culminating activity of Policy Conference is a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby our Senators and Representatives. As in past years, we brought three issues for discussion. This year the issues were: (1) asking for support of the annual foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in military aid to Israel; (2) to co-sign a letter to Congressional leadership to complete and send to the President an Iran Sanctions bill; and (3) to co-sign a letter to Secretary Clinton emphasizing the importance of a close US-Israel relationship and reminding her that disagreements with our close friends should be carried out in private, and not on the world stage. On this last point, several speakers at the conference noted that the more the US publicly separates itself from its closest ally Israel, the more unwilling the Arab world (and hence, the Palestinians, who can’t act independently even if they want to) dig their feet in.

  2. Mel Appelman Says:

    There is somewhat of a debate going on concerning the question, what is more critical at this time “The threat of our younger generation losing interest for Jewish values within Israel or the slow disintegration of support for Israel by this White House and the administration?.”
    The one viewpoint simply states that without a strong cohesive Jewishness and a feeling of religious Zionism in the minds of our young people, a Jewish state means nothing.
    The other viewpoint stipulates that without a strong Israel supported by the US and particularly the White House, Israel may be lost and its enemies will parade through the streets of Tel Aviv.
    If only one of these viewpoints deserves top priority and focus from the Jews of the Diaspora, which one heads the list?

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