AIPAC conference comes amid turmoil

WASHINGTON (IPS) - The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s powerful and hawkish pro-Israel lobby, kicked off its annual policy conference this weekend during a period of unusual turbulence both for the organization and for the US-Israel relationship.

AIPAC won a notable victory on Friday, when prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against two former AIPAC staffers who had been accused of committing espionage violations by passing classified information to the Israeli government and to reporters.

But the group remains in a difficult position. It faces a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from the two staffers alleging that they were wrongfully terminated, and it has been swept up in the mushrooming scandal involving alleged espionage and influence-peddling centered upon Rep. Jane Harman.

More broadly, the administration of President Barack Obama appears set to clash with the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom AIPAC has long had close ties, putting the organization at risk of appearing out of step with the US government.

And the group has faced mounting criticism in recent years on charges that it skews US policy toward Israel in a right-wing direction, and fails to represent the more moderate positions of most US Jews. These concerns led to the formation last year of a rival and more dovish pro-Israel lobby, J Street.

But the AIPAC policy conference, held from 3-5 May in Washington, is a reminder of the considerable influence that the organization still possesses.

A star-studded roster of lawmakers, including top leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties, will appear to salute the group and the US-Israel relationship.

These lawmakers will include Harman herself, who is still on the schedule despite the recent scrutiny of her activities, as well as Senator John Kerry, the Democratic leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and four top congressional leaders from both parties: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor.

Israeli President Shimon Peres will attend the conference, and Netanyahu himself will address it via satellite.

But the main focus of the conference is expected to be Iran rather than Israel-Palestine.

Netanyahu has argued that dealing with Iran’s nuclear program should be a higher priority than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and hawkish elements in the so-called “Israel lobby” in the US have tended to support Netanyahu’s position.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected that argument in congressional testimony in late April, arguing that progress on the Iran and Palestine fronts must go “hand-in-hand.”

Conference attendees will go to Capitol Hill to lobby for House and Senate bills that would let the president step up sanctions against foreign companies that sell gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. Iran, despite vast reserves of crude oil, lacks refining capability and is reliant on imports to meet its domestic energy demand.

The bills were introduced last week in the Senate by Senators Kyl, Evan Bayh, and Joe Lieberman and in the House by Rep. Howard Berman. Berman has stated that he will hold his sanctions bill in committee pending the administration’s negotiations with Iran.

Nonetheless, critics have denounced the bills for sending mixed messages that would undercut the administration’s diplomacy.

The Jewish group Americans for Peace Now, which is opposing the legislation, stated that it “risks weakening, rather than strengthening, the President’s hand as he begins engagement with Iran.” J Street, AIPAC’s recently-formed rival lobby, has also spoken out against the legislation.

The legislation is a reminder that AIPAC remains dominant in lobbying members of Congress. But it is the executive branch that is a bigger worry, as the Obama administration has already begun to contradict publicly the pronouncements of Netanyahu’s government and its controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Recent polls have suggested that the Obama administration enjoys strong support from both the US population at large and the US Jewish community on the key points of contention with the Netanyahu government, such as settlements in the occupied territories and the creation of a Palestinian state.

AIPAC has traditionally been closely aligned with Netanyahu himself and with his Likud party, and a clash between the US and Israeli governments would therefore put the group in an uncomfortable position.

J Street has already expressed concern about Avigdor Lieberman and the new Israeli government, and its supporters argue that their group is better positioned to represent the opinions of the US Jewish community than groups that typically offer reflexive support for hawkish Israeli policies.

The AIPAC conference comes just days after prosecutors moved to drop charges against former AIPAC staffers Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman.

The two were indicted and fired from AIPAC in 2005 on allegations that they received classified information regarding Iran from a US government source and passed it on to reporters and to the Israeli embassy.

Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon staffer who passed them the information, pled guilty to conspiracy in 2006 and was sentenced to over 12 years in prison.

Prosecutors decided to drop charges against Rosen and Weissman after a series of court rulings that diminished the prospects of winning a conviction. Notably, Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled that prosecutors would have to prove not merely that Rosen and Weissman sought to benefit Israel but that they sought to harm the US — a standard that would have been very difficult to meet.

Now, Rosen and Weissman are filing suit against AIPAC, alleging that the group wrongfully terminated and publicly scapegoated them. They are seeking millions of dollars in damages.

The saga took another turn in late April when reports surfaced that Rep. Harman had been caught on a government wiretap agreeing to intercede on Rosen and Weissman’s behalf if her interlocutor — a suspected Israeli agent who has not been identified — helped lobby to get her a top congressional intelligence post.

According to subsequent reports in the New York Times, the suspected Israeli agent promised to get Haim Saban — a wealthy Israeli-American media tycoon and prominent AIPAC supporter — to withhold campaign contributions from Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi if she did not appoint Harman to the post.

The dismissal of charges against Rosen and Weissman would not necessarily defuse the charges against Harman, since the legality of such a “quid pro quo” deal, if true, would not depend on Rosen and Weissman’s guilt or innocence.

Still, the dropping of charges on the eve of the conference is likely a welcome relief for an organization that has become increasingly embattled in recent years.

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