AIPAC: The Image of Power

You’ve probably seen the commercial that has the slogan “image is everything.” Well, in Washington that is often true. The same week several papers published stories suggesting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had lost its focus and influence, the organization held its annual policy conference which featured, for the first time, the President of the United States, who shared the dais with the Prime Minister of Israel. The Senate Republican and Democratic Leaders headlined the annual banquet, which attracted more than half the Senate and more than 100 members of the House, senior Administration officials and diplomats from around the world. The message was that Washington policymakers believe AIPAC is still powerful enough that it is important for them to be seen under its banner.

Given the supposed obsession of Presidents with the Jewish vote, it may be surprising that no sitting President ever spoke at the conference before, but it was a good move by Bill Clinton given his need to insure support from his most loyal constituency. Even if you accept the commercial slogan, however, substance cannot be ignored. While it was an impressive display of influence to have the President make an appearance, his performance was a disappointment.

Clinton’s speech reflected his approach throughout his term, which might have its own slogan, “do no harm.” When he is lauded for being one of, if not the most pro-Israel President in history, it is not so much for what he has done, but for what he has not done. Unlike his predecessors, he has managed to avoid conflict with the Israeli government. He adopted the wise policy of allowing the parties in the region to negotiate directly and not to interfere. By doing so, and also making clear his support for Israel, he has played a significant role in the success of the peace process.

Clinton has strengthened the relationship by selling F-15I fighters, paying the major share of development costs for the Arrow missile, delivering multiple launch rocket systems, approving the sale of supercomputers and allowing Israel access to the American space-launched vehicle market. Still, the feeling is he could have initiated much more. When he introduced his new Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, and pointed out he was the first Jew ever to hold that post, it was a reminder that with all the Jews in prominent places in his Administration, he could do more to promote Shared Value Initiatives in areas like health, social services, energy and education. No new agreements have been signed between U.S. agencies and their counterparts in Israel and the existing ones remain as inactive as they were during the Bush Administration. In fact, one of the most effective agreements, in social services, has actually become moribund under Clinton.

The President missed an ideal opportunity to introduce new initiatives before a friendly audience. More noticeable was what he did not say. After AIPAC’s Executive Director, and Prime Minster Rabin both made strong statements about Jerusalem remaining the united capital of Israel, Clinton ignored the issue altogether. This was the time for him to restate his campaign pledge that he believed Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and he would instruct the State Department to implement this policy. His silence on the issue should shake the stones of the Western Wall.

By contrast, Senator Robert Dole said he was introducing legislation requiring that the U.S. Embassy be opened in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and that groundbreaking begin next year. Dole also said he supported maintaining Israel’s current level of foreign aid. Of course, most Jews remember Dole’s criticism of Israel, especially when he linked Israel’s 1989 kidnapping of Shiite Muslim leader Abdul Karim Obeid to the murder of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins by Lebanese terrorists. Dole accused Israel of endangering American lives and said “perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing” (one of Dole’s rivals for the GOP nomination, Sen. Richard Lugar, called Dole’s comments at the time “unfortunate” and said the linkage he made was “illogical”). Dole was also the proponent of a cut in aid to Israel during the Bush Administration.

The presence of so many important decisionmakers helped burnish AIPAC’s image, but it was the normally stoic Rabin who gave the conference its most heart-rending moment. Though he too failed to break any new ground in his speech, reiterating the government’s policies on the peace process, he captured the emotions of those committed to Israel when he said he would visit the parents of Alisa Flatow, the young American killed in the terrorist attack on a bus in Gaza.

“Her wonderful parents donated her organs, including her heart, in order to save a number of Israelis,” Rabin said. “I have no words that can adequately express my gratitude for this. I will go to convey my condolences to them personally. And when I do so, I will think how much Alisa Flatow symbolizes the connection between [Israel] and you, the American Jewish community. Today her heart beats in Jerusalem.”

For the nearly 2,000 students and adults who participated, this year’s AIPAC conference provided intellectual stimulation for the curious, ammunition for the political and, thanks to Rabin, nourishment for the Zionist.

Image is something.