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 AIPACâ€™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. â€œPlease take your seats,â€ 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 â€œRoll Call.â€ 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. â€œFrom Wisconsin, Russ Feingold!â€ 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 Israelâ€™s security, and the sophistication to cultivate politicians and articulate AIPACâ€™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. AIPACâ€™s message usually consists of maintaining or boosting US military aid to Israel, and advocating policies that promote Israelâ€™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 Americaâ€™s â€œspecial relationshipâ€ with Israel.