AIPAC policy conference: where’s the buzz?

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

Why does there seem to be much less buzz than usual about  this year’s AIPAC policy conference, which begins on Sunday at the Washington Convention Center?

Don’t get me wrong; nobody doubts the policy conference will be the most spectacular Jewish political event of the year, as usual, or that Monday’s banquet will pull in throngs of lawmakers and other top politicians that other organizations can only dream of.  But chatter about the conference has  been surprisingly thin this year.

I put the question to a handful of Jewish activists here in the capital; these are some of their explanations:

– It’s not an election year.  That means there won’t be the blockbuster, closely scrutinized speeches by leading candidates, like there were last year, and intense anticipation of how the AIPACers will respond.

–  Bibi’s not coming.

Until a couple of weeks ago there was widespread speculation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be one of the AIPAC keynoters. Now, he’s scheduled to appear via satellite TV.  Instead, Israel will be represented by President Shimon Peres.

Peres has plenty of fans at AIPAC, but let’s face it: he’s not the one making policy in Jerusalem, and he’s not the one whose decisions will determine whether there’s a U.S.-Israel clash that will be a big challenge for the pro-Israel lobby here.  He’ll get a polite reception, but his presence won’t draw swarms of reporters and hasn’t set off a lot of anticipatory talk.

– Distractions galore.

Swine flu,  pervasive economic angst, an administration that moving rapidly on key domestic legislation,  the mushrooming financial crisis for Jewish organizations.

Get the picture? A lot of Jewish activists have other issues on their minds right now. While the Israel focus of AIPAC activists is undiminished, it’s just not at the same level for the Jewish community in general.

“You talk to people around the country about their top concerns, and Israel doesn’t come up until 8 or 9,” said a leading Jewish activist this week. Polls show much the same thing. So among AIPACers the policy conference is as exciting as ever, but it just isn’t producing the usual pre-conference buzz for many others.

– The recession.

AIPAC officials aren’t talking (big surprise there, right?), but insiders say that attendance is likely to be down somewhat because of the continuing economic hard times.  My guess is that AIPAC, with its passionate single-issue constituency and swollen coffers, will probably be affected less than most other Jewish groups by the downturn; nonetheless, the fact a lot of Jews have a lot less money to spend is certain to have some impact on the policy conference.

To call the AIPAC conference lavish is an understatement; maybe there’s a degree of discomfort about focusing too much on a conference that seems like an ostentatious relic from the good old pre-recession, pre-Madoff days when Jewish groups had money to burn.

– The lack of The Big Issue.

Many years, the policy conference is dominated by a single hot issue – a fight with an administration, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, arms sales to Israel’s enemies, U.S. pressure on settlements, whatever.

Not this year, even though many anticipate a clash between the Obama and  Netanyahu governments over fundamental peace process questions after the two leaders meet on May 18.

AIPAC wants The Big Issue to be Iran – again.  In keeping with long tradition,  it managed to have its supporters  crank out new legislation on the issue just in time for the conference.

But the legislation is just an incremental step beyond current law, and the Iran issue just isn’t galvanizing the broader Jewish community the way it did a few years ago.

You’d think the question of whether AIPACers will speak out at the conference against the Obama administration’s efforts to find a way to talk to Iran would generate some pre-conference buzz. It hasn’t.

–  Miscellaneous controversies.

A few years ago pre-conference talk centered on how AIPAC would deal with the arrest of two former staffers (the case against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman was dropped on Friday).  Two years ago it was the keynote speech of Christian Zionist leader John Hagee and the fireworks that produced.  Three years ago it was the first blast by Israel lobby critics Walt and Mearsheimer, and press speculation about whether the days of the lobby were numbered.

This year pre-conference controversy is hard to find.

The scheduled appearance of Rep. Jane Harman, the subject of recent stories about a federal wiretap linked to the now-dropped case of the former AIPACers, has generated surprisingly little talk

This year there’s some talk that former House Speaker Gingrich could provide some raw meat for the pro-Israel right. What signals will be sent out if Gingrich, a harsh critics of the new administration and an ally of Bibi Netanyahu, gets a better reception that Vice President Biden, a longtime supporter of Israel but not always a buddy of AIPAC?

Often there’s a mini-controversy, at least in the Jewish press, about the AIPAC action agenda, which is debated and voted on at the policy conference. But after all these years folks have figured out that the debate in AIPAC’s big executive committee isn’t really related to the group’s lobbying. So what’s the point?

In fact, most of the pre-conference buzz is coming from anti-AIPAC activists who predict this is the year AIPAC will finally be cut down to size.

The problem is, they predict that every year, and it hasn’t happened yet.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.