WASHINGTON — The signs at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference were emblazoned with the words “This is Israel,” but the overarching message to the record-setting crowd in Washington, D.C., was clear: Stop Iran now.
On the first night of the three-day conference, which ended Tuesday, March 3, Brad Gordon, director of policy and government affairs at AIPAC, told the 16,000 attendees that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was their one and only goal in lobbying legislators on Capitol Hill.
“When we go to the Hill on Tuesday, we will stress the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue. And we will ask Congress first to support diplomacy by increasing economic pressure on Iran [and] second to insist on a good agreement, one that truly prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”
Gordon, a former U.S. ambassador who worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, said that a third emphasis would be for Congress “to play a key role in reviewing any agreement” reached between U.S. and Iranian negotiators at talks in Geneva.
It was a message echoed just hours before AIPAC sent teams to lobby representatives and senators by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told a joint meeting of Congress that the contours of a deal being drafted with Iran prior to a summer deadline portend doom to not only the Jewish state, but to the United States as well.
It is a “very bad deal,” said Netanyahu. “We’re better off without it.”
Typically, AIPAC lobbies for three issues. In recent history those items have been securing foreign aid for Israel, lobbying for a negotiated peace on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Iran dominated the speeches of nearly every guest invited to the main stage of the morning and evening plenary sessions.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke for nearly 30 minutes Monday about the importance of the U.S.-Israel bond and reiterated a commitment to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
“Talks, no talks; agreement, no agreement — the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest allies,” she said.
Power won over the audience by addressing how the United States supports Israel at the U.N.
“Before the United States joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, more than half of the country-specific resolutions adopted there were focused on Israel,” she said. “Today, we’ve helped lower that proportion to less than a third.”
Power also touted America’s lone dissenting vote against a resolution to create a commission to investigate alleged human rights violations during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas last summer.
But the speech by Power, who urged attendees to hear the Obama administration out before pronouncing judgment on the Iran negotiations, addresses from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and well-received remarks from foreign dignitaries including former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman were merely a prelude to the man everyone had gathered to see: Netanyahu.
As Bob Cohen, president of AIPAC, began his introductory remarks, the audience got to its feet before the prime minister even stepped foot on the stage.
Clearly in his element, Netanyahu, whose presence in Washington and push to derail a nuclear deal between the West and Iran earned rebukes from the White House as well as from Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, his challenger in the country’s March 17 parliamentary elections, showed off the English he polished growing up in Philadelphia and as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
He teased the crowd by calling out to competing whoops and cheers, “Anyone here from California? Florida? New York?”
“You’re here from coast to coast, from every part of this great land. And you’re here at a critical time,” he said. “You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of Israeli-U.S. relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong.”
After thanking a litany of guests, including Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prossor and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister attempted to downplay the political furor of his congressional address.
“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” Netanyahu said. (He echoed that point a day later in Congress.)
Getting to the heart of his approximately 20-minute AIPAC address, Netanyahu said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.”
He further emphasized his contention with a projection of a world map detailing areas where Iran has been accused of sponsoring terrorism.
“Now disagreements among allies are only natural from time to time, even among the closest of allies. Because there are important differences between America and Israel,” he said. “American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”
In Congress, Netanyahu doubled down on his opposition to the progress of the negotiations, saying, “We don’t have to bet the future of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better.”
In the absence of a present deal that, according to numerous reports, would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons after 10 years, but would reduce sanctions in the interim, Netanyahu pushed for Congress to assert its authority in ensuring a deal that would change Iran’s behavior. Specifically, he wants Iran to “stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East,” “stop supporting terrorism around the world” and “stop threatening to annihilate my country Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”
Given Netanyahu’s rapturous welcome at AIPAC, there was a question as to how White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who had previously called the Israeli Prime Minister’s address to Congress “destructive to the fabric” of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, would be received that evening.
With that in mind, former AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg instructed the audience that ad hominem attacks on Rice, such as one published Feb. 28 in a New York Times advertisement taken out by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Values Network, or any other official would not be tolerated. No boos were heard throughout Rice’s remarks, but the response was largely tepid.
Rice showed off her Israel bona fides. She littered her opening remarks with Hebrew phrases, pointed to her 17-year-old son in the audience, who she said insisted on attending, and recalled her first trip to Israel at 14.
After her lengthy introduction, Rice got to the task of defending the administration’s stance on negotiations. She outlined broad details about what a good deal would look like, including verifiably cutting off every path for Iran to produce fissile material to create a single nuclear weapon and increasing the timeline for Iran to reach breakout capacity — the point at which Iran could produce a weapon if it chose to — from the currently estimated two or three months to at least a year. Rice insisted that it would be unwise to divulge the sensitive details of the negotiations to the public and further pushed back on what role Congress should play in any deal.
“I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic enrichment capacity entirely” she said, at which point the crowd got to its feet, nearly drowning out the second half of her sentence, “but as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable.”
She further stated that other Western powers do not support such a measure.
Whereas Rice received mostly perfunctory applause throughout her address, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) by contrast was the rock star of the evening. The crowd leapt to its feet multiple times throughout his fiery speech. Whistles and cheers rang out through the hall as the senator, who has sponsored legislation pushing for increased sanctions on Iran with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), took a jab at Rice and her Democratic colleagues who were boycotting Netan-yahu’s speech in Congress.
“When it comes to defending the U.S.-Israeli relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone,” said Menendez. “Not Israel’s political enemies, and not my political friends when I believe they’re wrong.”
He was the only speaker Monday evening to directly address the controversy surrounding the prime minister’s speech to Congress, saying, “Now I agree with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation to Congress tomorrow may have been unfortunate … but I must disagree with those who say that the prime minister’s visit to the United States is destructive to U.S.-Israel relations.”
To roars from the crowd, he took a swipe at the White House’s position that it was inappropriate for Netanyahu to inject himself into an American political matter, Menendez referred to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s address to Congress in January, in which he lobbied against Iran sanctions.
“It seems to me that if it’s OK for one prime minister to express his views,” said Menendez, “it should be good for all prime ministers.”
Menendez’s warm welcome was not unexpected. AIPAC citizen lobbyists were instructed to urge their Congress member to sign onto his Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015. The bill calls for cascading monthly increases in sanctions that will begin if a final Iran nuclear deal is not completed by the July 1 deadline. AIPAC attendees were further urged to advocate for the new Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), which was co-sponsored by 11 senators and introduced Feb. 27.
Obama has long been clear about his intention to veto the Menendez legislation and added Saturday that he intends to do the same with Corker’s bill. The bill would prohibit the president from suspending or waiving sanctions on Iran for 60 days after an agreement, would require any agreement’s text to be submitted to Congress five days prior to the deal’s signing and calls for an assessment of Iran’s compliance every 90 days.
Among those who joined in the lobbying efforts were some of the record 3,000 high school and college students who attended this year’s conference. They included student body presidents, students from historically black colleges and universities and students from Christian campuses.
Meital Rosenberg, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, helped organize a sizable group from the Hillel JUC, which serves multiple college campuses in the Pittsburgh area. She counted 20 undergraduates from her own university, including the student government president, a student leader from Carnegie Mellon University, six recent graduates and graduate students and a number of Hillel staff. This was a significant increase from the six students who attended last year’s conference; all were on hand for a dinner the opening night of the AIPAC conference, reportedly the only one organized by a campus Hillel group.
At the dinner, Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, pointed to the Pittsburgh Hillel and its Israel activism as paving a way for campuses across the country.
“The numbers are incredible,” Rosenberg said of the Pittsburgh contingent at AIPAC. “There are a lot of students where this is their first [Policy Conference]. For a lot of them, they’re blown away by being in a room with so many people who support Israel.”
Strong recruitment was a factor in the uptick, said Rosenberg, but efforts promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel on Pittsburgh campuses became a rallying point for pro-Israel students.
“We’ve been thinking about what’s the best way to handle it,” she explained. “Being as involved as possible on campus and with other campus groups to help people understand that BDS is not an effective or dialogue-starting method of achieving anything — it’s more driving a wedge between groups and taking a more hateful attitude that marginalizes people.”
She and her student cohort planned to lobby Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican.
All told, the entire Pittsburgh delegation at AIPAC totaled more than 80 people, which the organization said was the largest ever to come from the Steel City.
Joshua Runyan contributed to this story. Melissa Apter writes for the Baltimore Jewish Times.