AIPAC conference – the first primary?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Marco Castro/UN)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Marco Castro/UN)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Call it the first primary.Ten months before New Hampshire voters render their tone-setting verdicts in the race for the next president of the United States, candidates from both parties and their proxies will wander the halls of next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference assessing their PIQ — pro-Israel quotient.The conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby addresses an array of challenges facing Israel, but dealing with Iran carries a special urgency as its nuclear program continues apace.AIPAC’s executive committee is expected to outline its tough pro-sanctions line in a resolution, and delegates will endorse bills outlining further sanctions — including against third parties that deal with Iran — when they visit Capitol Hill to lobby on Tuesday, the conference’s final day.Iran also is the pro-Israel issue where Democrats and Republicans differ — on the degree of permissible engagement with the Islamic Republic — and conference-goers will closely watch how top representatives of both parties frame the issue.The annual policy conference is AIPAC’s benchmark event and the one opportunity to reach major givers in the pro-Israel community gathered under a single roof, albeit the huge, multi-raftered roof of Washington’s convention center.AIPAC traditionally draws about 6,000 activists to the policy forum. This will be the last chance to reach them before primary season begins in January. This presidential campaign is expected to be the most expensive race ever. None of the declared presidential candidates will speak at the conference, but most are likely to attend Monday’s gala dinner, the conference’s highlight. Top officials speaking include Vice President Dick Cheney and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her first AIPAC appearance since becoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will speak at the same session as Cheney, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will address the gathering by satellite.The agenda for the policy conference reads like a wish list for what the pro-Israel powerhouse expects from the candidates –- and members of the U.S. Congress.One session is titled “Danger in Damascus,” leaving little doubt where AIPAC stands on accommodation with Syria. “Radioactive Revolution: What a nuclear Iran would mean for the world” is similarly straightforward.Other topics include isolating the Palestinian Authority as long as it is headed by Hamas and promoting homeland security cooperation between Israel and the United States.Another feature of the conference is AIPAC’s renewed outreach efforts to non-Jews. One session is dedicated to pro-Israel African Americans, and several embrace evangelical Christians, a group that organizational Jews only recently have come to appreciate. Pastor John Hagee, who founded Christians United for Israel, is a speaker.The presidential candidates have been reaching out to the pro-Israel community in large forums and small in recent months, from regional AIPAC conferences to Israel’s Herzliya policy conference in January. Most recently, U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addressed local AIPAC events in New York and Chicago.AIPAC rushed Obama’s Chicago appearance forward to last Friday, partly so the candidate could set out his Middle East policy before the AIPAC conference.There is bipartisan consensus on much of the AIPAC-endorsed agenda, though a subtle fault line is emerging on Iran policy.Virtually all of the candidates speak of maintaining a military option as a means of preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, but Democrats favor a greater degree of engagement while Republicans favor cutting off the Islamic Republic entirely.AIPAC won’t count out engagement, but makes it clear that it should occur under the most restrictive circumstances as long as Iran resists nuclear transparency.”AIPAC firmly believes that diplomatic, economic and political sanctions are the critical instruments in the effort to persuade Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability,” Josh Block, AIPAC’s spokesman, told JTA.”AIPAC is not in principle opposed to engagement with Iran, and given Iran’s consistent pattern of delay and deception, AIPAC believes diplomatic efforts should not slow the necessary and continued imposition of biting economic and political sanctions,” Block said. “By increasing the pressure on the Iranian regime, the international community can continue to create the circumstances most likely to lead to Iran abandoning its illicit pursuit of nuclear capability.”Making sanctions rather than negotiations the “critical instrument” of engagement with Iran is the hallmark of Bush administration policy. It’s significant that Cheney, the administration’s toughest Iran strategist, is addressing the AIPAC conference for the second year in a row.It’s a difference that spills down to the candidates.Republicans talk almost exclusively of sanctions. In the scenario they outline, engagement appears almost absurd.”When the president of Iran calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, or asks for a world without Zionism, or suggests that Israel’s Jewish population return to Europe, or calls the Holocaust a myth, it is clear that we are dealing with an evil man and a very dangerous regime,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a satellite address to the Herzliya conference.Appearing at the same event in person, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate, belittled parallels to engagement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War as “wishful thinking.””The Russians were never suicidal,” he said. “This cannot be said for a regime that celebrates martyrdom.”In contrast, Democrats emphasize engagement as much as they stand by the military option as a last resort.”While we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons,” Obama said last week.Clinton also endorsed engagement in her AIPAC appearance last month, her first foreign policy event since her presidential announcement.”I’m not sure anything positive would come out of it,” but it’s worth testing, she said.Democrats must take into account a base that is wary of military engagement in the wake of the Iraq quagmire.John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, talked a tough line in his own satellite address to the Herzliya conference — and has been walking back from it since, repeatedly endorsing engagement.”We’re not negotiating with them directly,” Edwards lamented to the liberal American Prospect magazine last month. “We’re not being smart about how we engage with them.”

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