WASHINGTON (May. 24)
Amid lavish multimedia presentations at this year’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, there was a strong sense of business as usual. The powerful pro-Israel lobby was working hard to show it is the same organization it had been before reports of a federal investigation surfaced and two senior officials, who allegedly received and passed on classified information to Israel, were dismissed.
At the same time, it was trying to broaden its appeal, highlighting the American over the Israel in its name, placing a more human face on its lay leadership and diversifying its ranks.
Its membership seemed unruffled by the scandal, more focused on such policy issues as the Iranian threat and Israel’s disengagement plan than on newspaper headlines.
Since allegations first surfaced last August, supporters and political officials have rallied behind the organization, giving money and lending support.
They gathered in Washington this week in record numbers for the policy conference. The 5,000 delegates, including some 800 students, hoped to send a message that the organization is the same group it always has been.
Dania Kier Kronick, 49, doesn’t believe that any of the charges leveled at the group are valid, but the public relations official from Boca Raton, Fla. said she wouldn’t worry even if they were. “We have such a strong message that even if a few flounder, and I don’t think they did, it doesn’t diminish the cause,” she said.
AIPAC’s message resonated with those who came to the Washington Convention Center for the three-day conference, which culminated with lobbying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
The organization received major kudos from high-profile speakers, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“Judging by how many students I see in the audience today, I know that AIPAC’s future is clearly going to be bright,” Rice said in her address on Monday.
Sharon, in his first visit to the United States as prime minister without an invitation to meet President Bush, thanked AIPAC for its “tremendous work” in contributing to the close relations between Israel and the United States.
“AIPAC’s continued support is more important now than ever before,” he said.
Nearly half the members of the U.S. Congress participated in the conference. Most of them attended Monday night’s gala dinner, which featured speeches by the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress.
Those statements and statistics are seen as key, as detractors were watching to see whether AIPAC would lose some of its luster because of the negative press.
Inside the convention, AIPAC leaders were making the case that the organization works for the good of the United States, not just Israel. This year’s theme, “Israel. An American Value,” included an opening plenary Sunday featuring non-Jewish AIPAC backers. The delegates to the conference include many non-Jewish student leaders, including some from Christian and historically black universities.
“It’s important that it not just be about Jewish people coming together to support Israel,” said Ryan Berni, president of College Democrats at Louisiana State University, standing with the school’s College Republicans president Monday night.
The unstated goal, it seemed, was to quash suggestions that AIPAC acts more as a foreign agent for Israel than as an American lobby, allegations that many believe prompted the federal probe.
In a noted break from tradition, “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, was not played at Monday night’s gala.
The organization also sought to highlight its lay leaders. Before Rice spoke, many members of the board of directors gave testimonials to AIPAC’s work on five giant television screens that surrounded the ballrooms.
In his annual address, AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, thanked members for standing with the organization, and suggested the investigation was a test of AIPAC’s collective resolve.
He said the organization has learned directly from the government that no current AIPAC staffers are a target of the federation investigation. Neither is the organization. Kohr also stressed that the organization would work harder to be above reproach.
“I work for you,” Kohr told delegates Sunday. “So, I therefore pledge to you that I will take the steps necessary to ensure that every employee of AIPAC, now and in the future, conducts themselves in a manner of which you can be proud, using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and maintain our effectiveness.”
Kohr’s leadership also received a strong endorsement from AIPAC’s president, Bernice Manocherian, who said the organization had not missed a beat.
“Since the beginning of my presidency, Howard and the entire staff have exhibited a level of professionalism and decorum that makes me very proud,” Manocherian said to applause. “People are not just defined about how they act in a moment of ease, but how they conduct themselves under the most difficult circumstances.”
Later, she spoke glowingly of the group’s membership, comparing its political clout to that of the National Rifle Association, which has a much larger budget, and the AARP, which has five times as many members.
“I don’t think our respect for this organization has diminished,” said Susan Carlisle, 56, an accountant from Agoura Hills, Calif. “If anything, we’re a little fearful and we’re going to close ranks even more.”
Outside the convention halls, people were still talking about the probe.
Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy, was quoted in The New York Times on Sunday as saying that he had done nothing wrong.
The same article suggested that AIPAC fired Rosen and Keith Weissman, an Iran analyst, last month after lawyers heard a tape of a conversation Weissman had with Larry Franklin, a former Pentagon analyst since indicted for passing classified information.
According to the report, the tape caught Franklin, who was cooperating with the FBI at the time, telling Weissman that he was giving him classified information about the threat to American and Israeli agents in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, at the hands of Iranians.
Rosen and Weissman passed the information onto an Israeli Embassy staffer and a reporter at the Washington Post, sources tell JTA.
Franklin will be in court for a preliminary hearing Friday, and sources close to Rosen and Weissman say the two expect to be indicted as well.
Franklin now faces additional charges. On Tuesday, he was charged with possessing classified information at his West Virginia home.
Some AIPAC members at the conference questioned whether the organization should have dismissed Rosen and Weissman, believing they did nothing wrong.
Rosen, in particular, spent 23 years with the lobby and was famous for briefings to board members and other donors.
“It’s a regrettable situation, but probably the right thing to do,” said David Hirsch, 43, a real estate developer from Greenwich, Conn.
“Those two individuals were extraordinary people and enormous contributors, but they became too much of a political liability and we are a political organization.”
Supporters said this week’s convention provided a major boost to the group’s image.
“I don’t think any less of AIPAC, but I have concerns about whether it will make a difference in its effectiveness,” Joseph Sitrick, 84, a retired foreign service officer from Chevy Chase, Md., said.
“But look at the turnout. You couldn’t have greater support than that.”