This week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its annual conference, and true to form, the list of speakers for this year’s conference reads like a who’s who of major U.S. and Israeli power brokers and hawkish policy figures.
Despite strong talk from Likud-aligned figures like Alan Dershowitz and folks from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute who have attempted to downplay talk that the so-called pro-Israel lobby has had an undue influence on U.S. policy, AIPAC proudly states in the press release for this year’s event that it is “consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill.” The press release also highlights 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.”
Helping set the tone for the conference during its opening session, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) emphasized what he saw as the urgent need for strong U.S.-Israeli relations in “a world full of dangers,” highlighting “threats” from Iran. He said, “Tehran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an unacceptable risk, a danger we cannot allow.”
The lineup of speakers, particularly in the “breakout sessions” on specific issues, is very narrow, ranging—in Israeli terms—from those in far-right pro-settler groups to the center-right governing Kadima Party. The highest-ranking Labor Party member listed in the program is former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, who resigned from the Labor Party last week to form his own group, which is expected to join Kadima. Sneh strongly favors concessions for the Palestinian Authority under Abu Mazen, but he is strongly anti-Hamas and considers Iran an existential threat.
The spectrum of U.S. speakers is also remarkably narrow. On the “left” are former Clinton administration officials Dennis Ross and Daniel Benjamin, who is scheduled to speak on a panel that includes hardliners like Martin Kramer of the Sheldon Adelson-funded Shalem Center and Walid Phares of the neoconservative-led Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Ross spoke at the opening session that was opened by McCain, along with Sneh, Vice President Dick Cheney daughter Liz Cheney, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman. Absent from the lineup are U.S. advocates of engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran.
Much attention, as in the past several years, will be devoted to Iran, which dominates the list of lobbying priorities cited on AIPAC’s home page. A panel on financial sanctions against Iran will be led 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).
The session on Syria looks to be even more hawkish. In addition to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), presenters include Tony Badran, a proponent of regime change based at FDD, and WINEP’s David Schenker, who spent much of George W. Bush’s first term serving as a liaison between Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and key officials in the White House, including Elliott Abrams and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
The panel on Hamas and Hezbollah follows the same pattern. Entitled “Double Trouble,” the presenters include Leah Odinec, an AIPAC official; Avi Jorisch, who used to be with FDD and now heads the somewhat oddly named 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, described by the program as “three of America’s most renowned foreign policy experts.” They are former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, who until recently was on FDD’s board of advisors; Danielle Pletka of AEI; and Robert Satloff, executive director of WINEP. Ginsberg will also appear opposite 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 those championing the Islamofascism line, “Terror in Our Backyard: The Reach of Radicals Operating in America,” will 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 presenters.
Lastly, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) were scheduled to open the morning session on June 4. The big questions is, will Obama restate 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 recent decision to build nearly 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem certainly highlights the issue.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org).
Jim Lobe, “Convergence of Influence,” Right Web, with permission from LobeLog.com (Somerville, MA: PRA, 2008). Web location:
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