WASHINGTON (JTA) – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee likes to promote an image of bipartisan bonhomie at its annual policy conference. But that’s not always easy, especially in a presidential election year and with partisan passions running high over Middle East policy.
The first session of the AIPAC conference ,a foreign policy panel, produced some surprise fireworks.
Liz Cheney, a top State Department Middle East official in the Bush administration and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, came out swinging against President Obama’s record.
"Everyone in the room understands," she said, that Obama has made statements "more focused on containing Israeli actions than they have been on containing Iran."
Fellow panelist Jane Harman, a former California congresswoman who was the longtime top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, did not take the swipe at her party’s standard-bearer sitting down.
"This administration has done more than any in history to help Israel protect itself," Harman said.
She contrasted Obama’s efforts to keep Iran from going nuclear with what she depicted as the failures of the administration that employed both Cheneys.
“We have paid dearly in treasure and lives, and the results in those countries are very unsettling,” Harman said, enduring Cheney’s withering glare in referring to the wars that Bush launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. The pro-Iranian tilt of the Iraqi government was “very, very troubling,” Harman added, leaving unsaid that Cheney had helped midwife the same government into existence.
The parties that followed the Monday night gala were off the record, but the political movers and shakers shouted so loud in their rented tents in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, you could hear what they were saying out in the hall.
Once I got past the barriers it was off the record.
So what did I overhear from the hall?
National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris saying his party is the natural home for the Democrats …
And Republican Adam Hasner, running in Allen West’s old congressional seat in South Florida, joking about how the Republican Jewish Coalition could not so long ago meet in a phone booth …
And from this we learn much of what is said off the record at these events is said on the record at other events.
Daniel Hernandez, the congressional intern who helped save Gabrielle Giffords’ life after she was shot, got a shout-out at the NJDC event.
AIPAC showed a video interview with the college student, whose own political career is budding — he was recently elected to the Phoenix school board.
Hernandez described his interactions with a teacher who was a Holocaust survivor, and then his introduction to working for the Democratic Party.
"I started working for a lot of older Jewish women who called themselves my yentas," he said.
The last time he saw Giffords, Hernandez said, he told her he would attend the AIPAC conference.
"When I said AIPAC she just lit up and had a really big smile," he recalled. Her message? "Tell them I love Arizona and tell them I love AIPAC."
Rick Santorum was the first of three GOP candidates to speak at the AIPAC conference on Tuesday, its last day — and the only one there in the flesh. He wanted some love for actually flying in on Super Tuesday, when 10 primaries are being contested.
"I wanted to come off the campaign trail to come here," he said. Santorum also coined the catchy anti-Obama line of the day, saying that while Obama says he has Israel’s back, "from everything I’ve seen from the conduct of his administration, he has turned his back on the State of Israel."
Romney, speaking via satellite, got special treatment in two ways: First, AIPAC tweaked its tradition of having a home-state backer introduce the candidate by bringing on two AIPAC stalwarts — one from Massachusetts (where he governed) and one from Michigan (where he was raised, and where his father governed).
But won’t that contribute to the feckless image he is trying to shuck?
Romney also had a panel ask him questions, and he even made a little news when one of the questioners asked him what he would do to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"Talking about a peace process right now is a bit like setting up a tent in the middle of a hurricane," he said. "So there has to be some settling down of a number of questions I think before the peace process is going to get its legs again."
Newt Gingrich then spoke and delivered a quickie Israel platform in maybe a minute.
His first day, he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, introduce an energy plan that would reduce the necessity of Saudi oil and launch a bid to unseat the Iranian government.
Then he wanted his panel; some 10 seconds of dead silence: For Newt, there was no panel.
Gingrich recovered, and AIPAC even came back with two questions.