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 the closing plenary session of the AIPAC conference. In another hour, 6,500 delegates will board buses to Capitol Hill, fanning out to various House and Senate offices to try to influence the political process.
But this morning, two political heavyweights are speaking: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Vice President Joe Biden. Itâ€™s show time again: Some of the smaller breakout sessions are informative, with think tank fellows and politicians hashing out slightly different points of view on security issues, but the large plenary sessions are pure political theater.
Both the speakers and audience know their roles and their lines. Politician: say something warm and fuzzy about Israel. Audience: standing ovation. Politician: Speak, euphemistically, about Israel â€œtaking risksâ€ for peace. Audience: no response. When Kerry says, â€œPresident Obama has said he wants his administration to begin direct talks with Iran, and we need to give this strategy a chance,â€ he is greeted with stony silence. Kerry then calls for freezing settlements, which actually gets a smattering of applause.
But by far his biggest applause line comes at the end of his speech when he tells the story of visiting Masada on one of his numerous trips to Israel: â€œWe stood at the end of the cliff and altogether we shouted across the chasm Am Yisrael Chaiâ€¦the State of Israel lives. The people of Israel live! Israel lives!â€ The audience whoops and claps and exults in the moment.
Shortly after Biden starts speaking, there is an unexpected interruption. He is being heckled! Who is this woman and how did she get past the Secret Service? Later on the bus, a man says she is from an organization called Code Pink. As the security guards forcibly escort her from the premises, thousands of people stand and burst into raucous applause in order to drown her out.
Biden says things the audience doesnâ€™t like. America is taking a new direction in foreign policy, he explains. The status quo in the Middle East for the last 10 years has not worked, he says, and therefore â€œthe United States will approach Iran initially in the spirit of mutual respect.â€ Drop-dead silence. Biden says that if Americaâ€™s efforts at engagement donâ€™t bear fruit, at least it will be popular in the world and will have more international backing for â€œother options.â€ Later, on the bus to Capitol Hill, I talk to some folks from the suburbs of Chicago. Biden (and Obamaâ€™s) conciliatory approach gets a clear thumbs down.
â€œLook, weâ€™re children of the sixties,â€ says a woman from Skokie, Illinois, â€œbut when you grow up you realize itâ€™s not all about peace and love. Weâ€™re not all the same deep down and not everyone wants the same thing.â€