Addressing AIPAC's annual policy conference, Vice President Dick Cheney found that the Iraq war is hardly a rallying cry in the pro-Israel community.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Dick Cheney’s message to AIPAC was typically blunt: You want to take on Iran? It’s a package deal with Iraq.
"My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace that is posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened,” the vice president admonished the 6,000 delegates attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy forum March 12.
Cheney’s appeal is part of Bush administration efforts in recent months to shore up support for the Iraq war in quarters it once took for granted: Republicans in Congress, the Christian right and now the pro-Israel community.
His message was not received enthusiastically: Only about one-third to one-half of the audience in the cavernous Washington Convention Center hall applauded politely.
Behind Cheney, some AIPAC board members sat stone-faced, including Amy Friedkin, a past AIPAC president who is close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a fierce critic of the administration's handling of the war.
Cheney’s speech was jarring because the tone of this year’s meeting was to have been emphatically bipartisan — even more than normal for AIPAC, the powerhouse lobby that prides itself on crossing party lines.
The keynote speech March 13, before delegates ascend to the Capitol to lobby for tough sanctions against Iran, will be delivered by Pelosi and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who otherwise agree on little.
The traditional “roll call” of VIP guests at the gala dinner Monday night is to be headlined by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate's majority leader, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), its minority leader.
Cheney, who stopped just short of accusing Democrats of sedition, hardly struck a bipartisan tone. Of Democrats who voted for congressional resolutions opposing the war, he said, “They are not supporting the troops, they are undermining them.”
Addressing proposed timetables for withdrawal, he said, “When members speak not of victory but of time limits, they are telling the enemy to watch the clock.”
Cross-party support for Iran’s isolation is a theme of the conference.
Speaking at the session Cheney opened, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told delegates that the next day they would lobby for new legislation, the Iran Counterproliferation Act of 2007, proposed by Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The bill would expand existing sanctions against third parties that deal with Iran and restrict the president's ability to waive the sanctions by citing national security considerations. Kohr also outlined plans to get state employee pension funds in 10 states to divest from companies that deal with Iran.
Cheney’s tepid reception — barely two or three standing ovations during his speech — was in sharp contrast to the sustained applause he earned last year, or even the sharp applause the mere mention of President Bush’s name still conjures at this event.
To be sure, AIPAC delegates deeply appreciate the unprecedented support the Bush administration has shown Israel. The administration's high marks — isolating the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the steadfast support for Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah and the tough U.S. posture against Iran — were noted by AIPAC President-elect David Victor, who introduced Cheney.
Indeed, Cheney’s references to those issues earned him his strongest unfettered applause.
AIPAC never explicitly supported or lobbied for the Iraq war, but some in the pro-Israel community once saw the war as an effort that would more closely align the United States and Israel against a common enemy: Arab and Muslim radicalism.
Additionally, it was considered churlish to deny support to the Middle East policy of a president who is so profoundly pro-Israel.
Those views are now unraveling with the ongoing violence in Iraq. Participants attending an AIPAC session on the “global reach of the terrorist network” said Brookings Institution expert Daniel Benjamin drew applause when he blamed the war for opening up the gates of terrorism.
Israeli leaders have expressed support for the Iraq intervention as a means of showing Bush and Cheney gratitude. On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni offered such a nod when she told delegates that the dangers of appeasing Iran are “true for Iraq.” She paused for applause but received virtually none.
AIPAC delegates once may have perceived a link between the war on Iraq and the war against terrorism, said Scott Miller, an AIPAC executive committee member from Dallas. That was especially true in the lead-up to the removal of Saddam Hussein, who had attacked Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and funded terrorists.
Now, however, the tendency is “not to see a relationship with the war on terrorism,” Miller told JTA.
“I don’t see the sense of cohesive support for the process” of removing Saddam “in the Jewish community that there was at the outset,” he said.
Alluding to Iran, Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., said, "We in the Jewish community have to be very careful about getting caught up in extraneous platforms. We risk losing our effectiveness on our core issues."
But at least one delegate was persuaded by Cheney's plea for support.
"I was beginning to waver on the Iraq war," said Suzanne Dinur of Atlanta.
"The message I got today is that if we get out, then they will win — the
terrorists, al-Qaida, Iran."