Wednesday, June 4, 2008

AIPAC Policy Conference 2008 - Day 3

(Click here for video of the key speeches from the AIPAC Policy Conference)

By now, most of you have probably seen the news reports about this morning’s plenary session, “Democrat Day” at AIPAC. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Republican Leader John Boehner (the token Republican) addressed us, but the biggest ovations were reserved for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama spoke first, and his task was to win over a crowd that, based on its unequivocal affection for prior speakers representing the Administration, appeared to be skeptical at best. But as soon as he was introduced by a Chicago AIPAC activist and friend, for the first time as the “presumptive nominee,” the throng appeared to be swept up by the historical nature of the moment. I know that I was.

It may or may not impact how people will vote, but what mattered today was the moment, and what it means about equality, freedom and the fulfillment of the American Dream. While Obama did not speak of race until the end of his speech (except for a brief autobiographical reference at the beginning), he did it in a manner that framed this moment not only as a breakthrough for African Americans, but also for that historical alliance with Jews that melted away in the late 60s.

This was a tough crowd, and he won them over long before reaching those closing paragraphs about race. Yes, he is a great speaker (man, does he know how to raise the cadence of his voice in perfect synchronicity with the rising of an audience – it almost made me wish that High Holiday sermons could have applause lines), but what made this the perfect speech for this skeptical crowd was not its emotional appeal, but its content. He knew just which buttons to push, not only to show the expected support for Israel, but to hammer home his toughness and stradfastness. The devil is in the details, and he knew details that only this very well educated crowd of Israel advocates would know and was able to position himself on the right side of all of them – even, in one case, to the RIGHT of the Administration (on keeping Jerusalem undivided, which the Administration is saying is subject to negotiation).

It was a tour de force, but was it enough? Hard to say, because in John McCain, the Republicans are running perhaps the only Republican this side of Joe Lieberman (sorry) who could compete on a level playing field for the Jewish vote – against anyone. In fact, they’ve nominated Joe’s twin brother!

Then came Hillary, and again, history. In between Obama’s rock star exit and Hillary’s introduction, the loudspeaker announced that there would be an unexpected intermission – curious, because we were running late for the lobbying efforts that are the most important part of the conference. But almost instantly, that intermission was cut and Hillary was introduced. I suspected at the time (and it was later confirmed) that the two candidates’ paths had crossed “by happenstance” and they were talking. It was a short conversation.

Hillary faced an enormous challenge. It was doubtful that she would choose this venue to secede from the race, but if she came on stage at AIPAC and did not offer real support to the presumptive nominee before 7,500 activists, she would be blowing her best chance – and perhaps only chance – to bring Jewish supporters around to Obama. Conceivably, were Obama to lose the Jewish vote in November, it might have been traced back to what Clinton did right here. She walked that fine line, all but conceding in assuring people that the next President had to be a Democrat and in the next breath saying that she “knows that Barack Obama will be a great friend of Israel.”

To wax Clintonian for a moment, it all depends on what is the meaning of “will be.” Does it mean that he “will be” friendly to Israel? But isn’t he already?

Or does it mean that he “will be” President?

Her intent was clear. And so was the pain on her face. She looked very tired, more vulnerable than in her recent feisty rallies. But she was received with such warmth and love. When she uttered those “will be” words, there was a bit of a stunned silence in the crowd for a moment. Was this it? Should we cheer? That was followed by a prolonged standing ovation that might be better described as a mass exhaling. There. She said it. So now, let’s go on.

This was not only a historical moment for American politics, it was a historical week for AIPAC. Never has Israel’s position been so synonymous with America’s, and never has the support been so widespread and bipartisan.

It remains to be seen whether the legislation we were asked to promote will provide enough pressure to up the ante on Iran, or whether the realities of Congressional life – and Washington’s current dysfunctionality - will enable good legislation to be passed in time. With a summer recess looming, and the elections to follow, we are close to shut-down mode, just at the point where the Iranian threat is becoming most dangerous. I also have doubts as to whether that rock solid support will withstand an Israeli incursion into Gaza, should it become necessary. But still, it is as solid as ever.

Our Connecticut delegation met with Senators Dodd and Lieberman and Rep. Shays up on Capitol Hill, in the Dirksen Office Building. Our group was large (but I hope that next year it will be even larger) and the session was, as you might expect, extremely congenial. Our representatives in Washington are among Israel’s staunchest supporters on the Hill, but still they need to be thanked and to hear about our concerns. Senator Dodd made the point that Israel needs to become a prime cause not only for Jews in Connecticut, but for those in the mainline churches as well. And we need to help make that happen.

Shays spoke of his evolution on this issue, how he came to recognize only many years later how much Israel had helped America and the world when it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Now, when people ask him what has Israel done for us, he can point not only to that, but to the bombing of the reactor in Syria last fall. When he heard about that, his reaction (and the President’s): “Thank God for the Israelis.”

Thank God for the Israelis and thank God for this unbreakable bond of friendship between Israel and America. AIPAC, you done good.

In the midst of everything, Ethan and I snuck off for a couple of hours to visit the brand new Newseum, just a few blocks from the capitol. As a lifelong news junky, I was in paradise. And it gave me a chance to explain to him why Walter Cronkite was called the most powerful man in America (sort of like what Stephen Colbert is today). Check it out next time you are in town.

In the spirit of that museum, I’ve always wanted to sign off from Washington by saying “Goodnight, Chet.”

But since I stepped back in the door back home in Stamford a couple of hours ago, I’ll simply sign off with “Good night.”

I’ll have more to say at services this Shabbat.

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