Tough timing, but plenty of muscle to spare

By Jonathan Cummings, March 7, 2013
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Reports of Aipac’s demise are premature.

It is true that this is the first time for several years that neither the US President nor the Prime Minister of Israel will be addressing its policy conference.

It is true, too, that the conference takes place in the shadow of an American budget crisis that could see billions of dollars wiped off the defence budget and in advance of Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel, during which he is expected to play hardball with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Neither has the dust settled after the bruising battle over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence.

So, this is not ideal timing for the conference. Israel’s political leadership was largely absent from Washington this year, stuck in Jerusalem sweating over month-old coalition negotiations. Just days after the new government is ratified by the Knesset — and presuming that Mr Netanyahu can form a coalition — President Obama will visit Jerusalem. This is not the week to unveil major policy announcements.

However, this has done little to deter the 13,000 members of Aipac who gathered again this year. They heard from Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Vice-President Joe Biden and, by video link, Mr Netanyahu. They were urged to carry the conference’s legislative agenda to Congress on to lobby their representatives to see that Israel enjoys a unique status as the US’s “major strategic ally” and that the US gives Israel a “green light” if it feels obliged to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

On Tuesday night, they gathered for the gala dinner, the focal point of the conference. Before the main speeches, Aipac indulged in a little muscle politics in the form of the roll-call, a relay-race recitation of the great and the good who have addressed, visited, or participated in the conference. It takes half-an-hour to read out the hundreds of names of national and local political, religious and civic leaders who come to affirm their support for Israel. This alliance between the two groups — donors and recipients — is the bedrock of Aipac’s support.

And those foundations appear firm, at least for the time being. This year’s roll-call is impressive and long, with dozens of Senators and hundreds of members of Congress, mayors, heads of churches and civic leaders called out. But this year the first name on the roll-call is not the President of the United States.

Last updated: 2:45pm, March 7 2013