The annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) begins on Sunday in Washington, D.C. Aptly billed as “what may very well be the greatest pro-Israeli show on earth” by Chemi Shalev of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, the three-day conference will host over 12,000 delegates and feature a high profile list of speakers, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (appearing via satellite).
The conference’s legislative agenda is set to focus on strengthening U.S.-Israel relations and Iran’s nuclear program. In particular, delegates will lobby House and Senate members to co-sponsor legislation that would formally designate Israel as a “Major Strategic Partner” of the U.S., as well as press senators to cosponsor a resolution that would declare that the U.S. would stand by Israel should it take military action against Iran.
AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington and is the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the country, as evidenced by the array of high profile politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, who speak at its conference each year. The yearly conference is essentially a bipartisan Israel love fest and functions as an important and tangible reminder of the influence of the Israel lobby in U.S. politics.
For the first time in seven years, neither the U.S. president nor the Israeli prime minister will be attending the conference (although as noted above Netanyahu will speak via satellite). However, despite the absence of President Obama, this year’s conference has still attracted a host of influential figures. Key speakers include Biden, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird (from perhaps the only other country in the world that comes close to the U.S. in terms of its staunch and unquestioning support for Israel), Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Robert Menendez, and Republican Senator John McCain. See here for the full list of speakers.
Two issues will dominate the agenda at this year’s conference: strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and addressing Iran’s nuclear program. Designation of Israel as a “Major Strategic Partner” of the U.S. would be the first such relationship between the U.S. and another country and would further cement the already strong bond between the two countries. In addition, AIPAC delegates will also be lobbying Congress to make sure that the over $3 billion in annual security assistance for Israel and the additional $211 million for the Iron Dome missile defense system are exempt from spending cuts.
On Iran, delegates will be lobbying House members to co-sponsor the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which would further strengthen and expand the already harsh U.S. sanctions on Iran and also allow President Obama to impose sanctions on entities that maintain significant commercial ties to Iran. Furthermore, if senators approve the resolution on U.S. backing for an Israeli strike on Iran, while it would not amount to an explicit congressional authorization to use military force, it would, as Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress notes, “serve as an official announcement of U.S. policy to support any Israeli strike.”
The conference will also be the target of vocal protests by groups gathering under the banner Occupy AIPAC, which seeks to lessen AIPAC’s stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and encourage an “even-handed position that respects international law and the human rights of all people in the region.” Groups including CODEPINK, Interfaith Peace Builders, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation will be hosting a series of counter events around the AIPAC conference such as protests outside the conference venue and a day of counter-lobbying of U.S. politicians.
While the image of bipartisan support for Israel has been somewhat marred by the saga surrounding Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s confirmation process, in terms of substance nothing has changed. The level of bipartisan agreement when it comes to Israel is neatly captured by a quote from Eric Cantor in a promotional video for AIPAC. Cantor notes that, “although we are on opposite sides of the political aisle, we are absolutely united when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
While AIPAC and the Israel lobby in general are incredibly influential in U.S. politics, it is important to remember that it does not represent the views of all Jewish people or the opinion of all American on Israel. Part of the power of AIPAC and Israel lobby is that it serves to obscure and marginalise these dissenting viewpoints. This is worth keeping in mind as we watch the greatest pro-Israel bipartisan love fest on earth unfold over the next few days.