Washington – The specter of the 1930s overshadowed the Convention Center here as the pro-Israel lobby this week decried Iran as an existential threat to Israel and the West unseen since World War II.
In comparison, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s three-day annual policy conference largely played down the Jewish state’s longstanding conflict with the Palestinians.
More than 6,000 participants filled the cavernous convention center — the group’s largest gathering ever — just one week after Jordan’s King Abdullah beseeched a rare joint session of Congress to step up U.S. efforts to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli standoff, which he termed “the wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond ... the core issue [that] is not only producing severe consequences for our regions [but] for our world.”
But at the policy conference, glum, less-attended sessions on the paralyzed peace process were overwhelmed by the lobby’s increased emphasis on Iran as the prime international threat.
“The real problem is not the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Israel’s UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman told an afternoon plenary session. He dismissed the potential of its resolution to quell wider violence in the region. “The threat is the lunatic president of Iran,” he said. “The world must say it will not stand for the day when that crazy regime will have nuclear weapons.”
Speaker after speaker issued dire warnings about Iran’s development of technology capable of producing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; its declared desire to see Israel liquidated as a state; its president’s denial of the Holocaust and its support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas — both also pledged to Israel’s elimination.
And throughout the three-day affair, keynote speakers, individual participants, even posters with smiling faces of AIPAC leaders decking the halls, evoked the eve of Nazi Germany’s initiation of World War II and the Holocaust.
The Rev. John Hagee, Sunday evening’s keynoter, proclaimed bluntly: “Iran poses a threat to the state of Israel that promises nothing less than a nuclear holocaust. ... It is 1938, Iran is Germany and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”
A spellbinding preacher and advocate of alliance between Jews and Evangelical Christians around Israel, Rev. Hagee — controversial for his support of pre-emptive war with Iran and linking that to Christian end-times scenarios — promised a cheering crowd that some 50 million Evangelical Christians would stand with Israel even as “the whole world” seemed to turn against it.
In a televised profile projected on huge screens at Monday night’s plenary session, AIPAC activist Hillary Smith underlined her fear of such abandonment. “We saw how many people hated Israel,” she said, explaining her decision to join the lobby, “not just in the Middle East, but in the European states, in the United Nations — really, the United States is Israel’s only friend.”
Referring to a speech by Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerny Sunday night, participant Perry Cohen of New York showed he had absorbed the message. “You heard the guy last night,” he said. “This is 1938. In 1938 our choices led to the deaths of 10 million. It could have been stopped.”
Most speakers played down going to war with Iran as a near-term option in favor of an unbending, U.S.-led regime of increasing economic sanctions. In an address via satellite Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised sanctions already imposed on Iran’s nuclear program by the UN Security Council.
Leading members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), touted their support for the Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007, a bill that would, among other things, impose sanctions on companies and countries investing in Iran’s energy sector. On Tuesday, conference participants set off for Capitol Hill to lobby their House members and senators on the measure.
AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, promoted a movement to get stockholders, including state pension funds with huge portfolios, to divest themselves of holdings of firms doing business with Iran.
But just under the surface, support was clear for a military attack if sanctions failed. Indeed, AIPAC supported a move to smooth the way for such an attack during the conference itself.
House Democrats fashioning a supplemental appropriations bill for the Iraq war this week had hoped to include a provision requiring President Bush to get authorization from Congress for any attack on Iran. But late Monday, the provision was kept out of the bill, according to several Capitol Hill sources, due to vehement opposition from AIPAC and pro-Israel members of Congress, including Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I./Queens) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.).
In his satellite address to AIPAC members that night, Olmert — in a clear allusion to the issue — said, “At the end of the day, we must recognize that President George W. Bush is the only leader, and the United States is the only country, that can be enormously influential on what Iran will do. I am sure you will not hamper or restrain that strong leadership unnecessarily.”
AIPAC leader Kohr told the crowd, “We should be mindful that President Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs in Iran are watching Washington very closely ... any sign of weakness, any sense that we are willing to take options off the table will be taken as a signal that they can proceed with their plans.”
AIPAC spokesperson Josh Block pointed to this passage when asked about AIPAC’s stand. But he denied AIPAC had played any role in the congressional decision. Nevertheless, the authoritative publication Congressional Quarterly reported last week that AIPAC was even then working to keep Iran restrictions out of the bill.
Alternative Views Of Iran
In the convention center’s high-pitched atmosphere, questions about the character of the Iranian regime — debated hotly among experts — were quickly dismissed.
Alternative views came from scholars such as Ray Takeyh, until 2002 a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank funded by many of AIPAC’s major contributors. Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Takeyh states in the current issue of Foreign Affairs Quarterly, “The Islamic Republic [of Iran] is not Nazi Germany. It is an opportunistic power seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood without recourse to war.”
Takeyh and others advocate a radical policy shift toward U.S. “détente” with Iran. Among other things, he proposes that international nuclear monitors could negotiate much stricter control of Iran’s use of enriched uranium — and thus prevent its diversion to any military use — in exchange for allowing Iran to enrich it, as permitted under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
AIPAC member Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, the San Antonio rabbi who first encouraged Rev. Hagee’s involvement with the Jewish community, voiced bewilderment at this view.
“Islam is so aggressive and totalitarian in its thinking,” he said. “It’s not like Russia or China [was]. How can détente appease you when your system is predicated on totalitarian thinking?”
Rev. Hagee and other Evangelical Christians attending the conference were the objects of a virtual love-fest. At a Sunday night session that aroused many delegates and angered some others, AIPAC highlighted Christian Zionists whom, lobby leaders believe, will be a critical new partner for the pro-Israel movement.
Israeli historian Michael Oren set the stage with an analysis suggesting that the roots of American support for Israel date back to the early colonial era—and Protestants who created a theology embracing the concept of a restored Zion anticipating the Zionist movement.
Rev. Hagee, president of Christians United for Israel and author of several books on Christian prophecy, then came on and electrified the crowd. Besides calling for “victory” over Iran, he voiced opposition to any new territorial concessions by Israel to the Palestinians.
“I am concerned that in coming months yet another attempt will be made to parcel out parts of Israel in a futile effort to appease Israel’s enemies in the Middle East,” he thundered to a crowd that gave him numerous standing ovations. “I believe that misguided souls of Europe, I believe misguided souls in the political brothel that is now the United Nations, and sadly in our own State Department will try once again to turn Israel into crocodile food.”
Rev. Hagee engaged the crowd of Jews in a vigorous call-and-response chant of “Israel Lives,” evoking his career as an evangelical revivalist.
Not everyone was pleased. A senior Jewish communal leader witnessing the scene termed it “disturbing.”
“Don’t these people realize what this man stands for, in terms of church-state separation, in terms of what his followers see as Israel’s role in the apocalypse?” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being identified with criticism of AIPAC.
A high point for delegates was the ritual AIPAC “roll call” at Monday’s gala banquet, with the rapid-fire reading of the names of foreign and domestic dignitaries in attendance.
This year’s list included 48 Senate and 245 House members, ranging from pro-Israel stalwarts like Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to newcomer Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim member of Congress. Also in the crowd: at least three dozen foreign diplomats and numerous administration officials.