Notes from the AIPAC Policy Conference
05/04/2009 - 23:00
James Besser
Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 Is the legendary AIPAC “roll call” getting old? In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the story: at every year’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,  leaders of the group read out the names of all the congressional, administration and diplomatic officials attending.  Reporters keep count, hometown delegations cheer for their representatives and the message has the subtlety of a good sock in the jaw: this is a lobby with real clout. Sure, every single one of the political bigwigs named isn’t actually in the room, but most attended at least part of the conference, or promised to come.  It’s ostentatious, embarrassing and impressive; no other lobby group, Jewish or non-Jewish, can match it. But this year it was hard to hear the roll call because a huge proportion of attendees were on their feet, jabbering with their neighbors, networking, exchanging business cards and wandering a hall so big you need a telescope to see the other end. Could it be that veteran AIPACers are so used to an overwhelming display of support from Congress and the executive branch that they no longer pay close attention?  Could they be getting blasé about this display of raw political might? It was hard to hear in the clamor, but as usual Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) got just about the strongest cheer when his name was announced.  White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who met with AIPAC big givers earlier in the day, didn’t do so bad himself. The was some polite applause for Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the Muslim lawmaker who has become the leading proponent of U.S. aid to help rebuild Gaza, and  for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).  Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni seemed like a crowd favorite; so did John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Fifteen or twenty years, you could see the reporters and delegates ticking off the raw numbers, then comparing the totals; now, everybody just seems satisfied with the general conclusion “more than half the U.S. Congress.” Who wouldn’t be? I thought there were fewer State Department representatives than usual, but I don’t have a count from recent years, so I’m not sure. And while we’re at it, what’s with the incredibly short address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, via satellite television?  It was a well-done speech – tight, to the point, without a lot of fluff – but the end came so quickly some delegates and a lot of reporters seemed surprised. JTA’s Ami Eden timed it in his live blog: 6 minutes, hello to thanks and good night.  (JTA’s Ron Kampeas has a good analysis of the real news in Netanyahu’s speech in this video by the news agency). The AIPAC crowd seemed somewhat younger than usual – this was my twenty second policy conference, so I’ve had some experience. I asked AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, who said he had no hard data, but several policy conference veterans noted the same thing.  I’m not talking students here, I’m talking about activists in their thirties and forties.  No doubt Block and other AIPAC officials are happy with that shift. There seemed to be fewer anti-Israel, anti-AIPAC demonstrators outside the Convention Center before the gala banquet.  And I didn’t see the Neturei Karta guys, the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews who routinely hold down the same corner outside the massive facility and attract TV crews like picnics attract flies. Maybe they don’t like the rain? One more note: several times at the policy conference, I was stopped by Jewish leader types who brought up the issue of J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee that the press likes to portray as a competitor to AIPAC. The gist of their  comments: “Can J Street match this?,” pointing to the huge  crowd of activists and important politicians clamoring to get in the door. Answer: no.

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