It would have been easy for Israel advocates to be distracted at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s national summit here this week. To get to the meeting rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino here, one had to venture past the slot machines and the framed guitars that have been used by rock ‘n’ roll greats, the Harley Davidson motorcycles on display and the waterfalls that flow into a large swimming pool.
If that didn’t distract donors to the pro-Israel lobby from the work at hand, the recent rumors and innuendos surrounding AIPAC certainly didn’t stop them either.
Ever since news reports said AIPAC officials were being investigated for allegedly taking a classified document from a Pentagon official and passing it on to Israel, people have been watching AIPAC very closely.
The organization has responded by dismissing the charges as baseless and continuing its mission, insiders say, and the conference this week was a testament to that.
“Business as usual” was the oft-spoken mantra.
Among supporters, at least, it seemed to be true.
“The fact that this AIPAC national summit is a record turnout, that it’s our largest annual summit ever, is a tribute to the importance that people in this country place in the value of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said.
The two-day summit, which began Sunday, drew more than 800 people and brought key leaders from both political parties.
Some participants said the natural growth of the organization, combined with the heightened political season, drew participants, as well as the desire to support AIPAC just two months after it came under intense media scrutiny.
The conference was addressed by Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a foreign policy adviser to the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Rice’s presence was particularly striking: AIPAC advocates say the fact that Rice and President Bush have spoken to AIPAC since being informed of the details of the federal investigation reportedly launched two years ago shows that the charges against the group are not serious.
“I think the U.S. officials, whether it’s in the administration or Congress, realize how important relations between Israel and the U.S. are to the United States,” said conference participant Mark Engel, 57, a real estate developer in New York City.
“Their feeling is, whatever may have happened with AIPAC may or may not be true, and they can’t let innuendo distract them.”
The controversy reportedly focuses on a Pentagon official accused of passing a classified document about Iran to two AIPAC aides, who then allegedly passed it on to Israeli officials.
Some reports have indicated that AIPAC was the target of the probe. David Szady, the senior FBI counterintelligence official investigating AIPAC, has targeted Jews in the past, JTA has reported.
Most AIPAC supporters and staff at the summit refused to speak publicly about the controversy.
Privately, supporters said they believe the investigation may have been sparked by anti-Semites in the State Department or by others who want to defame Israel.
Some said the biggest vindication comes from the fact that no charges have yet been filed. The investigation appears to have stalled, if not faded away, according to sources close to AIPAC and in Congress
There was little mention of the controversy at the summit this week.
That was a sharp contrast to the days when the scandal first broke in late August, just before the Republican National Convention in New York.
At that time, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr began his remarks at each convention-related event by trying to quell donors’ concerns.
Kohr did raise the issue at one closed-door summit forum this week on “The State of AIPAC,” participants said.
Kohr said he did not know where the accusations came from, and would like to know more, participants said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.