Washington — Bipartisanship was the name of the game as American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference opened in Washington on Sunday, but a bitter feud over Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress threatened to strip bare any pretense of harmony.
As the Israel lobby kicked off its meeting, Netanyahu jetted into town after proclaiming that he speaks “for the Jewish people” on Iran — a claim that drew an unusually harsh critique from pro-Israel stalwart Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat.
“(Netanyahu) doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein told CNN. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community, there are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”
The nasty dispute came just hours before Netanyahu was set to speak to the 16,000 crowd at AIPAC. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, spoke of the “many active hours lobbying,” the organization put in convincing members of the House and Senate to attend Israeli prime minister’s Tuesday speech to Congress. He stressed the importance of a bipartisan Congress backing Israel and leading the way in pressuring Iran.
But reality has a way of creeping up and making such statements sound hollow. Convened in the huge conference room, surrounded by giant video screens telling the story of Israel’s struggle and its innovative spirit, delegates may have missed Feinstein, a close friend of AIPAC, lashing out at Netanyahu on national television.
Harsh words from friendly Democrats have become less of a rarity since the Netanyahu speech affair broke in January. And the challenge it posed for the pro-Israel lobby cannot be underestimated.
An NBC–Wall Street Journal poll published Sunday found a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans regarding Netanyahu’s upcoming speech. According to the survey, a large majority of Democrats, 66%, believed it was wrong to invite Netanyahu to speak without consulting with the White House. Only 28% of Republicans felt the same.
By design there was little partisan sniping at AIPAC’s opening plenary. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the audience the lobbying on Capitol Hill in favor of Israel will do more than “any speech”. In the spirit of bipartisanship, Graham was paired on stage with Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, and both vowed they’d attend the speech.
Later, organizers brought to the stage Republican House Majority whip Kevin McCarthy and his fellow Democrat Steny Hoyer, alternatively reading from the teleprompter praises of Israel, AIPAC and bipartisanship. “Democrats and Republicans don’t always agree, but when it comes to the safety and security of Israel, we will stand together,” Hoyer said. McCarthy agreed. Then the two congressional leaders promised to take a delegation of lawmakers from both parties to Israel this summer. Netanyahu, his speech, and relations with the White House, were not mentioned in the scripted presentation.
In hopes of ensuring that backing for Israel does not break down along party lines, AIPAC has also devoted time and resources into cultivating support from the left wing of the Democratic Party. This outreach effort proved especially needed this year, when progressive members of Congress and members of the Congressional Black Caucus led the charge against Netanyahu’s speech and made up the lion share of the 30-member roster of representatives who announced they’d skip the address.
The issue was discussed in breakout sessions devoted to working with progressive constituencies and with the African-American community. The latter meeting, which was closed to the press, discussed ways of supporting Israel beyond the current crisis. Pastor Timothy Williams of Lorain, Ohio said after the meeting that support for Israel among African-Americans has not diminished despite the anger among some black lawmakers.
“There are members who have challenges about how [Netanyahu’s speech] has been done, but not about Netanyahu or about Israel,” he said.
AIPAC’s quixotic quest to maintain its bipartisan veneer will face a major challenge Monday evening, when President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice addresses the conference Monday.
Rice has accused Netanyahu of acting in a “destructive” way, a comment that has made some conservatives call for boycotting her speech. “AIPAC delegates have the power to speak for themselves and, in doing so, deliver a message to the White House,” wrote columnist Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post.
Rice came under attack from Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, who ran a full-page ad accusing her of having a “blind spot” for genocide. The Jewish community’s major organizations strongly condemned the ad, but the reception Rice receives at AIPAC could give a sense of whether the partisan rift has made its mark.
With an Israeli election only two weeks away, it was probably not surprising that Israeli observers attending the AIPAC conference were split along partisan Israeli lines.
Center-left Labor Party lawmaker Erel Margalit accused Netanyahu of damaging relations with the U.S. by siding with Republicans against the White House. “Netanyahu managed to make some of the people leading the Iran negotiations into personal enemies,” Margalit said in an interview.
But Naftali Bennett, Israel’s cabinet minister from the far right wing Habayit Hayehudi party, sought to dismiss these concerns — and praised Netanyahu for doing anything needed to block a nuclear deal with Iran.
“There’s a lot of exaggeration in describing this crisis,” Bennett told reporters on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference. “We’re at war against a historically awful agreement.”
Contact Nathan Guttman on Twitter @nathanguttman