Tuesday, June 3, 2008

AIPAC Policy Conference Day 2

Ethan and I joined others from Fairfield County early this morning for a training session in advance of our lobbying effort tomorrow. We sat with Bob Abrams, who gave Ethan a big hug (causing me to reflect on how Ethan's being here was a natural extension of the Bi-Cultural Israel trip that Bob led for Ethan’s class three years ago – it’s definitely a good thing to bring your kid to this!).

While lobbying Shays, Dodd and Lieberman to support Israel might seem as needless as lobbying the sun to go down, it actually does serve a purpose. Yes they are already supportive, but we need to thank them for their constant support, and politicians, like the rest of us, really appreciate being thanked. I can recall a meeting with Chris Shays several years back, when he had just taken a tough stand in support of Israel, and he asked why he was not hearing more from the Jewish community. Lieberman asked the same question when he was running for President. In any event, it is always good to thank. As the Psalm says, "it is good to give thanks to Adonai." Even God needs to be thanked from time to time!

Also, it is not enough merely to ask for general support on Israel, as there are specific bills that need support. And today’s plenary sessions were all about our being “on message.” The theme of the conference was that the US – Israel relationship is “built to last,” and with today’s featured speakers being Secretary Rice and Prime Minister Olmert, representing administrations with limited shelf lives, the clear message delivered was that the relationship is so solid that it is built to OUTlast both administrations.

Being “on message” meant showing how that relationship is good for both countries - and Rice scoffed at the “crude conspiracy theories” that attempt to malign the pro-Israel lobby. When Michael Oren was at Beth El last fall, he spoke of how that relationship is not subject to political whim and manipulation but is deeply ingrained in us as Americans as it is for Israelis. It is about shared values.

The messages we received were powerfully delivered though videos as well as speakers. An Israeli author born in Iraq spoke of the plight of Jewish refugees. A resident living near Sderot spoke of the horrors of daily life under Hamas bombardment.

And the most pressing message of all: Iran, Iran, Iran. We learned about the strong sanctions that are being proposed, on business, banks and oil companies that supply fuel to the Iranians (they import 40% of their refined oil, believe it or not). The clear message we were given was that Iran can still be stopped by sanctions and international pressure. On the other hand, another clear message being sent to Congress is that Israel has the right to defend itself under all circumstances. Olmert was particularly powerful this evening in stressing Israel’s right to defend itself, both regarding Gaza and Iran. He was equally effusive in praising Abbas and in hinting that there are real possibilities for a breakthrough in those negotiations, and even a possibility with Syrians.

At tonight’s banquet, well over half the House and Senate attended, plus many dignitaries from Israel and dozens of other countries. It was an impressive display of the role of AIPAC in this town and the bipartisan affinity for Israel.

I had the privilege of having lunch with Natan Sharansky (OK, and about a hundred other clergy – I actually sat with Rabbi Mark Golub, who was covering the conference for Shalom TV). Sharansky related a story about how, when Napoleon was marching through Russia and came across a Jewish shtetl on Tisha B’Av, he asked the residents why they were sitting and crying. They told him that they were mourning the loss of the temple, 1700 years before, To which Napoleon replied, “A people who can cry over something that happened that long ago is a people that will live forever.”

Yes we are a unique people, and Israel is an extraordinary country. So is America. The relationship is rock solid right now, built, as they say, to last.

Tomorrow morning we’ll hear both Clinton and Obama (Pelosi too). Tonight I had a vision as Olmert spoke so powerfully. I imagined the three of them on the podium together tomorrow morning. Hillary and Barack emerging from the wings, with Ehud between them, arms around them, the way Bill Clinton led Rabin and Arafat into the Rose Garden that fateful day not too long ago, coaxing them to shake hands. Should be interesting….

Just heard on CNN that Obama tried to call Hillary just now but "she was on a plane to Washington" so they couldn't connect the call.

We’ll see what happens on the podium tomorrow – or more likely, behind it.

Ethan sends regards. We'll be home tomorrow.

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