WASHINGTON, D.C. — As you read this, more than 7,000 pro-Israel activists are descending on Capitol Hill in Washington, to lobby their hometown legislators in support of sanctions on Iran, an increase in foreign aid to Israel and renewed affirmations of support for the U.S.- Israel relationship. The lobbying is the culmination of the largest the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) national policy conference in the organization’s history.
As editor of TC Jewfolk, the Twin Cities’ hip Jewish news, politics and culture online magazine, I was in Washington to cover the event.
About 70 Minnesotans were among the attendees at this year’s conference, including more than a dozen campus leaders. For University of Minnesota junior Zander Abrams, the place was electric. Abrams told TC Jewfolk, “It’s wild. This is the place to be if you want to be involved in the pro-Israel movement politically. It’s just such a unique opportunity. You can’t get it in Minneapolis. You really have to be here to get this type of experience, this type of exposure.”
For the Minnesotans at AIPAC, the conference was a unique opportunity to learn more about the political, economic and moral issues facing Israel and that region, and then to speak with their senators and representatives about the importance of a U.S.- Israel relationship, and the need for strong sanctions on Iran. The conference was good timing — many have said that the relationship between the two countries has been a bit on the edge these last few weeks.
“We always look forward to it,’ said Rep. Waltz, a Democrat from Minnesota’s 1st District. “We talk about issues. People provide me with good information who are experts on the United States and Israel. We have candid conversations with 90 perceent commonality on purpose. Especially now when there is a little tension in the relationship, it’s important to hear what people are thinking.”
A strong undercurrent to this year’s policy conference was the Obama administration’s vocal opposition to announced Israeli plan to build new homes in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Last week Vice President Joe Biden condemned the decision to build homes as “undermining trust” and “complicating negotiations” and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chimed in by calling the Israeli announcement “insulting” to the United States.
‘Jerusalem is not a settlement!’
But the Obama administration had critics in the crowd at AIPAC. When Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu declared “Jerusalem is not a settlement!” at the AIPAC Gala Banquet in front of thousands of delegates, and hundreds of members of Congress, executive officials and international leaders, the crowd went wild, giving Netanyahu numerous extensive standing ovations to roaring applause.
Rep. John Kline, Republican from Minnesota’s 2nd District, summed up the concerns of many at the conference. “This year’s AIPAC conference comes at a critical time in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Despite a long history of strong and mutually beneficial ties between our two nations, recent statements by the administration have cast doubt as to their support for Israel’s efforts to protect and defend herself from her enemies.”
Minnesota’s AIPAC attendees were adamant that “maintaining a strong U.S.- Israel alliance is not just a Jewish issue, it’s an American issue,” said University of Minnesota senior Dan Garon. “That relationship is critical to world peace,” said Minnesota AIPAC Chair Mark Rotenberg. “It’s critical to peace in the Middle East, and it’s critical to the United States’ national security interests.”
Clinton only partially alleviated attendees’ concerns in her speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Monday. While she declared her strong support for Israel (to a total of eight standing ovations), she also asserted that the Obama administration had the right to publicly criticize a friend or ally when necessary.
Minnesota reactions to Clinton’s speech were mixed. Garon said that Clinton’s message was “reassuring. She made it clear that the Arab states have an onus to stop inciting violence, that the Palestinian authority is responsible for much of the loss of trust in the peace process, and that Israel’s security will always be the number one priority.”
But Rabbi Berel Simpser of AISH-Minnesota “was not impressed at all” by “Hillary towing the party line.” He said: “I don’t think she understands. We don’t really have a partner for peace. The gulf between us and the Palestinians, or the people who are negotiating for the Palestinians, is much greater than what can be negotiated.”
Letter to Obama
As they lobby their legislators today, the AIPAC conference attendees will ask their senators and representatives to sign on to a letter urging Clinton to “to do everything possible to ensure that the recent tensions between the U.S. and Israeli administrations over the untimely announcement of future housing construction in East Jerusalem do not derail Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations or harm U.S.-Israel relations.”
Minnesota’s AIPAC conference attendees are also bringing a letter urging President Obama to “reaffirm longstanding American policy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and to impose tough sanctions to deal with the grave threat from Iran’s steadily-advancing nuclear program” to their meetings this morning with legislators on Capitol Hill.
Divestment from and sanctions against Iran are important issues for GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, who attended the AIPAC Gala on Monday night. He told TC Jewfolk, “I think our time is running out in terms of Iran being a significant threat to Israel and to the rest of the world for that matter.” Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman agreed, telling a small crowd of Republican Jews that “the threat to Israel’s existence with Iran getting a nuclear weapon is an existential threat.”
Former Minnesota AIPAC Chair Amy Rotenberg said that AIPAC’s focus is on Iran because the possibility of a nuclear Iran “poses a significant and serious threat to the security of the United States and to the entire region. Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorism and the world cannot tolerate nuke weapons in the hands of the Iranians, who will pass it on to other rogue nations and terrorist organizations.”
Supporting Israel is not a Democratic or a Republican issue, said Walz. “Israel is our truest and closest ally in the region, with a commitment to values of personal freedoms and liberties, surrounded by a pretty tough neighborhood. A workable solution in that region can be a catalyst for stability throughout the region. And stability in the region brings stability throughout the world. The United States has a proper role as a world leader being part of the solution.”
Leora Maccabee is an attorney at the Maslon law firm and editor-in-chief of TCJewfolk.com.