The Gala Dinner

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

I am sitting at AIPAC’s gala dinner. Over 800 round tables are covered with shimmering golden tablecloths, bottles of kosher wine, china, and flickering candle centerpieces. The gala dinner is arguably the highlight of the conference, with over half the US Senate and Congress in attendance, along with White House chief-of-staff and Rahm Emanuel. In some ways the dinner is the height of slick Washington showmanship and in others it resembles an El-Al flight, where the passengers refuse to sit down, despite repeated exhortations from the flight crew. “Please take your seats,” former AIPAC president Robert Asher urged the restless crowd tonight, but the schmoozing opportunities were too abundant for them to listen.

As more than 6,000 banqueters dig into their stuffed cornish hen with broccoli rabe and sweet potato puree, the evening kicks off with the AIPAC “Roll Call.” Three national board members ascend the podium and read off the list of White House staff, members of Congress, Israeli dignitaries and foreign ambassadors in attendance. “From Wisconsin, Russ Feingold!” they exclaim, and so on and so on. Every once in a while, a popular name elicits sustained applause: Rahm Emanuel, John Bolton, Joe Lieberman, Al Franken.

Although it may seem like distasteful chest thumping, this exercise is at the heart of the way AIPAC operates. A promising young AIPAC activist will have money, a passion for Israel’s security, and the sophistication to cultivate politicians and articulate AIPAC’s message. The person will be encouraged to host fundraising events with other pro-Israel activists where the politician will learn that it is politically and financially worthwhile to adopt a pro-Israel position. AIPAC’s message usually consists of maintaining or boosting US military aid to Israel, and advocating policies that promote Israel’s security interests as an Israeli centrist politician might see them. For instance, this year, AIPAC is promoting tougher economic sanctions against Iran (not military action, as someone further to the right might do). It is also calling on the administration to adhere to certain principles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including a Palestinian commitment to end violence, direct bilateral negotiations, and maintaining America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

At the 2006 Policy Conference, AIPAC’s executive director Howard Kohr explained AIPAC’s origins:

In 1943 ten years and two million European Jewish deaths after Hitler rose to power, a group of American rabbis traveled to this city in an attempt to get a meeting at the White House. Their goal: to make a direct appeal for the United States to save their Jewish brothers and sisters from the gas chamber.

The meeting never happened. White House officials sent word that they were too busy to take a meeting.

My friends, decades later, in our nation’s capital, at a conference of the size and diversity our forefathers would have found inconceivable, the Vice President of the United States will come to us in what will be the largest American Jewish audience that any Vice President has addressed…”

Both power and perceived power are central to AIPAC’s M.O. The Center for Responsive Politics ranked the “pro-Israel industry” 40th out of the top 50 industries that gave to Congressional elections in 2004, behind lawyers and retired people. But it is perceived as extraordinarily powerful nevertheless. When Chas Freeman withdrew his candidacy for chair of the National Intelligence Council, he blamed the “Israel lobby.” Although his attitude was critical, his depiction of their power is not necessarily an insult.

“There is tremendous power in this room,” Senator John Kyl said from the podium at the Gala dinner tonight. “Power for good,” he hastened to add. One of the speakers tonight was Dick Durbin, a 30-year veteran of Congress from Illinois whose career is the kind of cautionary lesson AIPAC would like all politicians to heed. In 1982, Illinois representative Paul Findley became known as “Arafat’s best friend in Congress” after meeting with the PLO leader. Durbin was handpicked and funded by former AIPAC president Robert H. Asher and defeated Findley “in a landslide,” Asher gloated.

After Asher’s introduction, Durbin took the stage. “No one could have a better friend than Bob Asher,” he said, and encouraged other members of Congress to follow his lead building relationships with AIPAC members. “I recommend it.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 5, 2009

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