AIPAC Meets Under Cloud Amid Tumult Over Benjamin Netanyahu Speech

Israel Lobby Rocked as Attack on Susan Rice Bares Splits

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By Nathan Guttman

Published February 28, 2015.

Regulars at the annual parley of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are used to hearing speakers warn that “critical times” face supporters of Israel. Mostly, this is no more than a standard injection of some alarmism to jolt members into action.

This year the term is amply justified. And the catalyst is not some outside hostile force. By bypassing Democrats and the Obama administration in arranging his address to Congress, Israel’s own prime minister has unleashed a torrent of parlous consequences for AIPAC, one that will be on display at its conference that starts March 1.

First and foremost, it has imperiled achievement of the goal that AIPAC has defined as its prime long-term objective just as that effort was reaching its decisive moment: making sure America denies Iran any nuclear capability.

Among other things, the veto-proof majority that some believed was ready to vote for tougher sanctions against Iran in February, contrary to the administration’s wishes, dissipated at least temporarily with Netanyahu’s move.

Senate Democrats, including the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, made clear they would not vote for the bill now, in the face of what they saw as a move by Netanyahu to both snub President Obama and boost his own re-election when Israel goes to the polls just two weeks later.

A new reality of overt partisanship has now tinged the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The brawl set off by Netanyahu’s speech has also emboldened other Jewish groups to challenge AIPAC’s own longtime status as the strategic center for pro-Israel activism in Washington. As the lobby kicks off its three-day extravaganza in Washington’s Convention Center, it faces the need to now prove to members of Congress and to supporters that AIPAC is still the main voice of pro-Israel activism, despite increasing challenges coming mainly from a growing right-wing flank.

“Enough with this bipartisan nonsense,” Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox GOP activist told members of Conservative Political Action Committee convened in Washington just days before the pro-Israel lobby’s conference. “The real base of support for Israel,” he argued, will not be found among Democrats and liberals, but rather “here, at CPAC.”

A full-page New York Times ad sponsored by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach demonstrated how fractured the pro-Israel community has become when discussing Netanyahu’s visit.

Boteach, whose 2012 congressional run was heavily supported by right-wing donor Sheldon Adelson, ran an ad accusing national security adviser Susan Rice of having a “blind spot” when it comes to genocide.

With a backdrop of skulls of genocide victims, the ad claims Rice had said in the past that the mass killing in Rwanda should not be recognized as genocide. Rice has been one of the administration’s most vocal critics of Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, warning that his move was “destructive” to the fabric of U.S.-Israel relations.

The ad’s shocking claim succeeded in uniting most Jewish organizations in harsh condemnation AIPAC rejected the attack on Rice, as did all major denominations and Jewish groups. The Anti-Defamation League called Boteach’s ad “ugly” and said it was an “incendiary personal attack.” Netanyahu’s office also condemned the attack on the national security adviser.

Rice is scheduled to address the AIPAC conference on Monday evening.

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